January 21, 2009

New Moon Rocket Could Launch Giant Space Telescopes

By Tariq Malik
Senior Editor
posted: 21 January 2009
8:01 am ET

NASA’s plans for the mammoth Ares V rocket could do more than just launch new lunar landers and cargo to the moon. It could also haul massive telescopes that dwarf the Hubble Space Telescope or fling deep space probes on faster missions to the outer planets.

Slated to make its first test flight in 2018, the Ares V rocket is designed to stand about 381 feet (116 meters) tall and be able to launch payloads weighing almost 180 metric tons into low-Earth orbit.

“When it’s built, it’ll be the biggest rocket that’s ever been built,” said Kathy Laurini, project manager for NASA’s Altair lunar lander designed to ride an Ares V to the moon by 2020, has said. “It’s quite big.”

But while the Ares V is designed under NASA’s Constellation program to return astronauts to the moon, the rocket behemoth presents a boon for astronomers and other scientists dreaming of bigger, better space-based observatories.

“The science community is taking a hard look at Ares V and its capability,” Laurini told “It helps them enable a whole other class of mission.”


A concept image shows the Ares V cargo launch vehicle. Credit: NASA/MSFC

Heavy rocket science

The two-stage Ares V rocket is designed to launch Altair landers and an Earth departure stage into Earth orbit, where they’ll be met by an Orion crew-carrying spacecraft launched atop a smaller Ares I rocket. Two 5 1/2-segment solid rocket boosters derived from the current four-segment versions that launch NASA space shuttles will help Ares V haul payloads weighing nearly 396,000 pounds (180,000 kg) – or the equivalent of 17 school buses – into space.

“Imagine the kind of telescope a rocket like that could launch,” said Harley Thronson, an astronomer leading advanced concepts in astronomy at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. “It could revolutionize astronomy.”

Ares V will stand taller than NASA’s last gargantuan booster – the 363-foot (110-meter) Saturn V moon rocket – and will barely fit inside the cavernous Vehicle Assembly Building at the agency’s Florida launch site, NASA officials have said. Its nosecone is large enough to accommodate eight school buses stacked vertically, and its engines generate enough thrust to launch six times the cargo of a NASA space shuttle in a space three times larger than an orbiter’s payload bay, they added.


An artist's concept of the Single Aperture Far-Infrared Telescope (SAFIR) that could be launched aboard the Ares V. Credit: NASA.

Space telescopes of the future

A 2008 National Research Council report found that 12 of 17 potential flagship space science missions could benefit from the repurposing of NASA’s Ares V rocket for space missions beyond hauling cargo and landers to the moon. The missions range from massive space telescopes to planetary probes to the sun, Neptune and Saturn’s moon Titan.

The report, entitled “Launching Science: Science Opportunities Provided by NASA’s Constellation System,” cautioned that while such missions could cost more than $5 billion a piece, NASA’s Ares V rocket offered unique capabilities to launch enormous space telescopes that would humble Hubble Space Telescope and the James Webb Space Telescope slated to launch in 2013.

“The bigger the better,” Thronson said. “NASA’s new Ares V rocket is going to completely change the rules of the game.”

The roomy 33-foot (10-meter) payload shroud for Ares V allows extra space for space telescopes with larger main mirrors.

Hubble’s main mirror, for example, is about 7.8 feet (2.4 meters) across. Ares V could fit an observatory nearly three times larger, like the proposed 26-foot (8-meter) Monolithic Space Telescope, which would be able to observe objects in space 11 times more fainter and with three times the sharpness of Hubble, NASA officials said.

“The 8-meter-diameter telescope can only fit inside an Ares V payload fairing,” the NRC report stated.

Think bigger

Even larger space telescopes could be packed atop the rocket if their mirrors were folded up for launch, such the 52-foot (16-meter) Advanced Technology Large-Aperture Space Telescope (ATLAST) planned by astronomer Marc Postman of the Space Telescope Science Institute. The optical and ultraviolet light observatory could refine the search for habitable planets around distant stars and help better understand galaxy formation around supermassive black holes.

“ATLAST would be nearly 2,000 times more sensitive than the Hubble Telescope and would provide images about seven times sharper than either Hubble or James Webb,” Postman said. “It could help us find the long sought answer to a very compelling question, ‘Is there life elsewhere in the galaxy?'”

Astronomer Dan Lester at the University of Texas at Austin envisions loading a full 8-meter Single Aperture Far-Infrared Telescope (SAFIR) to probe deeper into the depths of protostars aboard an Ares V, or packing up a larger 16-meter version on the rocket.

Another proposal by Roger Brissenden of the Chandra X-ray Center includes calls for an 8-meter X-ray telescope dubbed Gen-X to hunt for the first black holes, stars and galaxies in the universe. The space-based Chandra X-ray Observatory, for comparison, has an aperture about 3 feet (1 meters) across.

Probing planets, deep space

Ares V rockets also pose a boon for interplanetary missions since the heavy-lift booster could offer a more direct flight.

According to the NRC report, using the rocket to launch NASA’s proposed Neptune Orbiter with Probes mission could negate the need to use a nuclear-electric engine or use Neptune’s atmosphere for braking during orbit insertion.

“The planetary community’s interested in performance for getting extra delta v to reduce the amount of trip time to the outer planets,” Steve Cookm NASA’s Ares project manager at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., has said.

Launching another mission, the Titan Explorer flight to send an orbiter, lander and blimp to the shrouded Saturnian moon, aboard an Ares V could shorten the years-long flight and allow the probe to use rocket engines, instead of atmospheric braking, to entire orbit, the NRC report stated.

“We could get incredible astronomy from this big rocket,” says Thronson, a professional dreamer. “I can’t wait.”


Outer Planets Choice is Narrowed

Filed under: Inner Solar System, Space Exploration — bferrari @ 1:49 pm
An impression of the TSSM orbiter set against a classic Cassini image (NASA)

An impression of the TSSM orbiter set against a classic Cassini image (NASA)

Ambitious plans to send probes to the outer planets are being considered by US and European space officials.

One proposal envisages sending an orbiter to Saturn which would also drop a lander and a balloon on to the haze-shrouded moon Titan.

The other sees two separate orbiters despatched to investigate Jupiter and its icy moons – Europa and Ganymede.

Space agency officials will meet next week to decide which of the two plans should go forward for further study.

The respective space agencies’ two top science executives, Ed Weiler (Nasa) and David Southwood (Esa), are expected to announce a “winner” in February.

The mission, which would cost several billion dollars/euros to build and execute, would not get to the launch pad before 2020; and may never fly if the agencies decide there are other space missions in their future portfolios that they consider to be a higher research priority.

would provide balloon and hydrocarbon lake lander (above) Orbiter to tour Saturn system before entering Titan orbit Tour allows further studies of Enceladus and its plumes Will need to raise the high scientific bar set by Cassini  (NASA/ESA)

Mission leaves Earth in 2020 on Atlas heavy-lift rocket Would take 9 years to reach Saturn with Venus fly-by Nasa: responsible for 1.6-tonne instrumented orbiter Esa: would provide balloon and hydrocarbon lake lander (above) Orbiter to tour Saturn system before entering Titan orbit Tour allows further studies of Enceladus and its plumes Will need to raise the high scientific bar set by Cassini (NASA/ESA)

Reports from the two competing definition teams were published online this week by Esa.

The documents provide detailed descriptions of the science rationale and goals of the different mission concepts, and how Nasa and Esa would dovetail their participation.

The Titan Saturn System Mission (TSSM), as it is currently known, would follow up the remarkable discoveries made by the Nasa/Esa Cassini-Huygens mission which continues to operate at the ringed planet.

The concept envisages another multi-instrumented orbiter that would make the moons Titan and Enceladus its chief targets.

Cassini has sent back data that indicates Titan is akin to a primitive – albeit frozen – Earth. It has a thick atmosphere and is rich in organic (carbon-rich) molecules. Recent revelations at Enceladus include the discovery that its southern polar region has hot spots that spew huge jets of water-ice into space. Scientists think there may be an ocean of liquid water beneath the moon’s surface.

The TSSM orbiter would dip into Titan’s atmosphere and the plumes at Enceladus to “taste” their chemistry. The orbiter would also drop a lander on to Titan to float on one of moon’s lakes of liquid ethane and methane. In addition, a balloon would be injected into the atmosphere to take pictures and sample the “air” as it drifted with the wind.

The Europa Jupiter System Mission (EJSM) proposes Nasa and Esa combine efforts in the Jovian system. Major targets here would be the Galilean moons Europa and Ganymede. Europa in particular has long been at the top of scientists’ wish lists to visit with sophisticated instrumentation.

Jupiter Ganymede Orbiter (above) lofted by an Ariane Probes use Venus gravity assist to arrive 6 years later Orbiters conduct joint observations at other Jupiter moons Would finally settle into orbits around dedicated targets Studies will focus on Europas and Ganymedes interiors End destructions will allow unique measurement opportunities (NASA/ESA)

Nasa: Jupiter Europa Orbiter could launch on an Atlas in 2020 Esa: Jupiter Ganymede Orbiter (above) lofted by an Ariane Probes use Venus gravity assist to arrive 6 years later Orbiters conduct joint observations at other Jupiter moons Would finally settle into orbits around dedicated targets Studies will focus on Europa's and Ganymede's interiors End destructions will allow unique measurement opportunities (NASA/ESA)

The ice moon’s crack-riven surface is also thought to hide a sub-glacial ocean (but on a larger scale to Enceladus). Researchers would love to get close enough to start to assess the habitability of this strange world.

The EJSM team suggests the US and Europe both send orbiters. Nasa would despatch the Jupiter Europa Orbiter (JEO); Esa would send the Jupiter Ganymede Orbiter (JGO).

The two spacecraft would conduct joint observations on occasions but only Nasa’s probe would spend time around Europa which is known to have a severe radiation environment. The spacecraft will need specific shielding to protect sensitive electronic systems.

The JEO and JGO would end their missions by crashing into their respective moons.

The concepts have risen out of several years of discussion on both sides of the Atlantic.

US inspirations have been channelled through Nasa’s Outer Planets Assessment Group (Opag).

The European initiative comes under Esa’s Cosmic Vision programme which seeks to map out space science endeavours through to 2025.

Initial ideas evolved under titles known as Tandem (now incorporated into TSSM) and Laplace (now in EJSM).

The Paris-based agency has set aside 650m euros (at 2007 prices) for a large class mission. The TSSM and EJSM concepts would fall into that category.

But whichever is chosen to go forward for further feasibility work will ultimately have to compete with concepts in astrophysics.

There are joint Esa/Nasa proposals on the table for a next-generation X-ray telescope, known as the International X-ray Observatory (Ixo); and for a mission to study gravitational waves in space, known as the Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (Lisa).

These concepts are trying to win the same funding opportunity.

Peter Falkner, who leads the planetary exploration studies section at Esa, told BBC News: “The [planetary missions] will go to down-selection with Ixo and Lisa; and then – under the current plan – two will be selected for definition phase in parallel, still in competition, and out of that will emerge a winner that will go forward to implementation.”


January 15, 2009

BREAKING NEWS: Clouds of Methane May Mean Life on Mars

Filed under: Extraterrestrial Life, Mars — bferrari @ 10:18 am
Mars during its most recent closest approach to Earth in December 2007. (NASA)

Mars during its most recent closest approach to Earth in December 2007. (NASA)

NASA scientists are expected to announce Thursday they may have proof there is life on Mars.

The scientists suspect alien microbes may be alive and kicking just below the soil of the big planet, after large quantities of what may be the organisms’ waste products were detected.

The organisms — called methanogens — are suspected to have been living in water beneath underground ice, where they are disgorging tons and tons of methane.

On Earth, methane is produced in massive quantities by animals such as cows, sheep and goats, as well as by geological processes.

Giant telescopes from Earth and NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter have spotted a haze of the gas surrounding Mars, and according to some scientists this can only point to the presence of life on Mars.

“Methane is a product of biology,” British Mars expert Professor Colin Pillinger told the London tabloid The Sun Wednesday night.

• Click here to read more from News Corp Australia.

January 14, 2009

Life As We Know It Nearly Created in Lab

Filed under: Life — bferrari @ 1:27 pm

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

An artists impression of an early Earth beset with meteorite impacts and volcanic eruptions. (NASA)

An artist's impression of an early Earth beset with meteorite impacts and volcanic eruptions. (NASA)

One of life’s greatest mysteries is how it began. Scientists have pinned it down to roughly this:

Some chemical reactions occurred about 4 billion years ago — perhaps in a primordial tidal soup or maybe with help of volcanoes or possibly at the bottom of the sea or between the mica sheets — to create biology.

Now scientists have created something in the lab that is tantalizingly close to what might have happened.

It’s not life, they stress, but it certainly gives the science community a whole new data set to chew on.

The researchers, at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, Calif., created molecules that self-replicate and even evolve and compete to win or lose. If that sounds exactly like life, read on to learn the controversial and thin distinction.

• Click here to visit’s Natural Science Center.

Know your RNA

To understand the remarkable breakthrough, detailed Jan. 8 in the early online edition of the journal Science, you have to know a little about molecules called RNA and DNA.

DNA is the software of life, the molecules that pack all the genetic information of a cell. DNA and the genes within it are where mutations occur, enabling changes that create new species.

RNA is the close cousin to DNA. More accurately, RNA is thought to be a primitive ancestor of DNA.

RNA can’t run a life form on its own, but 4 billion years ago it might have been on the verge of creating life, just needing some chemical fix to make the leap.

In today’s world, RNA is dependent on DNA for performing its roles, which include coding for proteins.

If RNA is in fact the ancestor to DNA, then scientists have figured they could get RNA to replicate itself in a lab without the help of any proteins or other cellular machinery. Easy to say, hard to do.

But that’s exactly what the Scripps researchers did. Then things went surprisingly further.


Specifically, the researchers synthesized RNA enzymes that can replicate themselves without the help of any proteins or other cellular components, and the process proceeds indefinitely.

“Immortalized” RNA, they call it, at least within the limited conditions of a laboratory.

More significantly, the scientists then mixed different RNA enzymes that had replicated, along with some of the raw material they were working with, and let them compete in what’s sure to be the next big hit: “Survivor: Test Tube.”

Remarkably, they bred.

And now and then, one of these survivors would screw up, binding with some other bit of raw material it hadn’t been using. Hmm. That’s exactly what life forms do …

When these mutations occurred, “the resulting recombinant enzymes also were capable of sustained replication, with the most fit replicators growing in number to dominate the mixture,” the scientists report.

The “creatures” — wait, we can’t call them that! — evolved, with some “species” winning out.

“It kind of blew me away,” said team member Tracey Lincoln of the Scripps Research Institute, who is working on her Ph.D. “What we have is non-living, but we’ve been able to show that it has some life-like properties, and that was extremely interesting.”


Knocking on life’s door

Lincoln’s advisor, professor Gerald Joyce, reiterated that while the self-replicating RNA enzyme systems share certain characteristics of life, they are not life as we know it.

“What we’ve found could be relevant to how life begins, at that key moment when Darwinian evolution starts,” Joyce said in a statement.

Joyce’s restraint, clear also on an NPR report of the finding, has to be appreciated. He allows that some scientists familiar with the work have argued that this is life.

Another scientist said that what the researchers did is equivalent to recreating a scenario that might have led to the origin of life.

Joyce insists he and Lincoln have not created life: “We’re knocking on that door,” he says, “but of course we haven’t achieved that.”

Only when a system is developed in the lab that has the capability of evolving novel functions on its own can it be properly called life, Joyce said. In short, the molecules in Joyce’s lab can’t evolve any totally new tricks, he said.

January 8, 2009

UFO Damages Wind Farm Turbine ?

Filed under: Extraterrestrial Life, Wierd — bferrari @ 10:15 am

UFO enthusiasts are claiming damage to a Lincolnshire wind farm turbine was caused by a mystery aircraft.

The turbine at Conisholme lost one 66ft (20m) blade and another was badly damaged in the early hours of Sunday.

County councillor for the area Robert Palmer said he had seen a “round, white light that seemed to be hovering”.

Ecotricity, which owns the site, said while investigations continued they were not ruling anything out – but the extent of damage was “unique”.

The turbine is one of 20 at the Conisholme site, which has been only been fully operational since April 2008. The broken blade has been recovered and is being examined.

Local ufologists said they had received many reports of activity in the area and had teams searching for clues.

Mr Palmer said: “I actually saw a white light – a round, white light that seemed to be hovering.

“That is the only way I can explain it – it wasn’t a flare-like light – it was just round, white light with a slight red edge to it that seemed to be over the wind turbines.”

Dale Vince, founder of Ecotricity, said the company was keeping an open mind about the incident.

“We don’t have an explanation at the moment as to what the cause was,” he said.

“We have been crawling all over it and have sent bits off for analysis to see if we can work out what caused it.

“Until we have some idea, some plausible explanation that it was not a UFO, I don’t think we should rule it out”.

He added: “To make one of these blades fall off, or to bend it, takes a lot.”

Numerous reports

Russ Kellett, from the Flying Saucer Bureau, said witnesses had told him of activity in the area.

“One saw what they at first thought was a low-flying aircraft on the Saturday evening and another heard a loud banging in the early hours of Sunday,” he said.

“This is the second most reports of activity we have ever had – I have had over 30 phone calls and emails.

“To hit two of the blades, any object must have been about 170ft long.”

But some technical experts have suggested a more mundane explanation.

Dr Peter Schubel, from the University of Nottingham, is an expert in the design and manufacture of wind turbine blades.

‘Military activity’

He said that if the turbine blade was still, it would take the equivalent of a 10-tonne load to do that kind of damage, but if it was rotating, or hit by a moving object, the force could be a lot less.

He said of the possible cause: “It’s definitely not a bird. It could be ice thrown from a neighbouring turbine that struck it.

“Most turbines have an anti-icing system on the blades and maybe it failed to prevent the ice build-up.”

The Ministry of Defence said it was not looking into the incident.

A spokesman said: “The MoD examines reports solely to establish whether UK airspace may have been compromised by hostile or unauthorised military activity.

“Unless there’s evidence of a potential threat, there’s no attempt to identify the nature of each sighting reported.”

Ecotricity said it hoped to have the turbine back in action within a week.


January 5, 2009

TOP TEN SPACE PHOTOS: Most Viewed of 2008

10. Supernova Creates “Ribbon” in Space

Like a ribbon trailing from a parade float, a streamer of hydrogen gas seems to waft across the stars in an image taken by the Hubble Space Telescope.

Released in July, this festive shot of a supernova remnant was National Geographic News’s tenth most viewed space photo of 2008.

Bright stripes within the ribbon—which is actually the shock wave from the stellar explosion—appear where the wave is moving edge-on to Hubble’s line of sight.

Ribbon in Space (NASA)

Ribbon in Space (NASA)

9. First Picture of Alien Planet Orbiting Sunlike Star?

A faint dot above a blazing inferno is possibly the first direct view of a planet outside our solar system orbiting a sunlike star.

The infrared image, taken by the Gemini Observatory in Hawaii, was released in September. At the time astronomers weren’t sure whether the body was a planet or a planetlike object, and it remains to be seen if it is truly orbiting the star.

Two months later independent teams announced the first infrared image of an alien multiplanet system, taken using a pair of ground-based telescopes, as well as the first visible-light picture of an extrasolar planet, snapped by the Hubble Space Telescope.

First photo of alien planet orbiting a star (NASA)

First photo of alien planet orbiting a star (NASA)

Click here for Top 10 Space Photos of 2008

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