Sunday, April 27, 2008

Chinese space dominance?

There is an interesting bit on CNN, nominally categorized as election news, which considers US space resources for the next president, and promotes the idea that China will surpass US space dominance by the end of the next president's next term. I am inclined to consider this fear-mongering, or at the very least fishing for a story, and the inclusion of a quote by Bob Zubrin sort of solidifies it for me.

I am a pretty big fan of Zubrin, but I think he has a tendency to exaggerate in order to get people to listen to him (perhaps that is a necessity when discussing the space program). Speaking of the Chinese, Zubrin had this to say:
"And we're standing still. If we continue to stand still, by the middle of the next decade, their space program will be superior to ours and they'll be moving on to the moon and Mars, while we're ... looking back on our former greatness," he said.

That is a gross exaggeration, because up to now, the Chinese have basically been repurposing Russian space technology. I don't think the Chinese have shown definitively they can create their own technology, and they would need to do that in order to put people on the Moon or Mars.

I support the space program, and I want it to succeed compared to the programs of the Russians and the Chinese, but I don't think screaming about the sky falling is the way to do it. At least I hope it isn't.

Friday, April 25, 2008

I'm surprised Russia does as well as it does

There were some complications recently with the Soyuz capsule which returned the International Space Station crew to Earth. The capsule made a steeper-than-normal descent and missed its target landing zone by 260 miles, and though some systems were damaged, the passengers are fine. I've always heard before that though the Russians seemed to compete with the US on the space race, they were never able to develop the precision technology that would be required to land a man on the Moon. I don't know if I believe that, but 260 miles does seem like a pretty big error.

However, I think what is more remarkable is the annual budget of the Russian Federal Space Agency, and their remarkable accomplishments with basically no funding. The annual budget of NASA is around $16 billion, with around $500 million spent on each shuttle launch. Compare that to the annual budget of the Russian space agency, which is around $900 million. With those kind of numbers, I am amazed that Russia is the space force it is.

Additionally, it makes a bit more sense why Russia would allow space tourists to pay $20 million for a ride up to the space station. With one passenger, they can increase their budget by 2%. You think NASA would let someone come along for the ride for an extra 2%, or $300 million? I hope they would.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Yuri's Night

This post is a little late for this year, but in case you're looking for things to put on your calendar for 2009...

Yuri's Night is a fun celebration every year on April 12th, marking the anniversary of Yuri's Gagarin's flight as well as the first space shuttle flight. This year, there were about 200 parties around the world in something like 50 different countries. We had a party at NASA Goddard that included a chance to see Science on a Sphere, a really cool way to show some of the awesome science that we do at Goddard.

For more details on the Goddard party, check out this link:

Also, I was interviewed by a TV station in Baltimore on April 10th about the party, so if you'd like to check that out, take a look:

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

German boy schools NASA, suggests asteroid may hit the Earth

This is an interesting article, especially considering our recent post on asteroids impacting the earth. A German school boy considered the probability of the Apophis asteroid hitting the Earth in 2036, when it will be coming closest to the Earth, as published previously by NASA. NASA said that the asteroid would pass near the Earth, but probably not hit us. NASA ultimately calculated that there was a 1 in 45,000 chance that the asteroid would hit us. However the school boy, Nico Marquardt, calculated also the possibility that the asteroid would hit a satellite in an earlier close encounter with the earth in 2029. The chance of the asteroid hitting a satellite (and the resultant change in velocity), increased the probability of an earth impact to 1 in 450 in 2036. What is even better than his results is the fact that the kid is 13 years old, and he was doing this work for a science fair project. How fantastic. I think his future is bright (um, unless the earth is destroyed with a massive asteroid he discovers.)

Friday, April 11, 2008

Obama Wants to Kill Space Exploration

It's official (check out this article for a good commentary) -- and sad. It doesn't stop me from supporting him for President (which I do), and i certainly agree that the current state of the space program isn't very inspiring, but putting space exploration completely on hold until "the mission is clearer" makes absolutely no sense -- he's basically arguing that we should stop working on the problem because we don't have a good solution yet. That makes no sense. Space and space exploration is one of the hottest topics in science today, and relegating it to the "not inspiring" category -- by someone who says he's all about inspiration -- seems completely myopic. If he wants inspiration and change in the status quo, he should see NASA and the whole space exploration effort as the perfect opportunity for re-invigoration, not cancellation.

And pitting it against pre-K education programs?? Of course it's going to lose -- another victim of a standard Washington budgeting ploy, by someone who says he wants to change the system. If he compared the budget of the space program with other long-term exploration science goals (things like particle colliders, deep sea exploration, etc.), and then justified his position based on a clear ranking of each of these goals and the overall budget plan for exploration science in general, I would at least respect his decision. Instead, by weaseling out he looks like he's trying to sweep it under the rug like any other politician. And that's just sad.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

UK Astronomy Under Threat

My first project as a Ph.D. candidate was to analyze NGC 6940, a galactic cluster, for transit events. The cluster was observed from the Isaac Newton Group (ING) of telescopes at La Palma in the Canary Islands. It is a popular destination for British astronomers, because it was fairly easily accessible and the telescopes are British-funded.

Now, it seems that ING and several other UK astronomy projects are threatened by funding cuts. It is a real shame, but I think American astronomers should follow this closely. However tight US scientists think their budgets are, it can be more difficult elsewhere. Brits don't even have the anti-science sentiment that can be found around the US. Instead, this reduction in resources is simply a budget crunch. The research councils, including the STFC, which funds astronomy, are funded by the UK government, and there simply isn't enough money to go around.

In the US, students have rightly complained that higher education costs have increased 5-8% annually, but when public funds don't keep pace with education and research, tuition costs (and to a much smaller extent, private fundraising) have to fill the gap. The UK education system has only recently allowed tuition fees, and those aren't even allowed in some places, so instead you have the situation where good science is shuttered, and projects are canceled.

What a shame.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Baby planet found

A colleague at St. Andrews announced this past week that she had observed a protoplanetary bulge around HL Tau. I previously wrote on the difficulties of figuring out how planets formed, because basically it seems that it takes such a relatively short time to form planets, and because forming systems don't necessarily lend themselves to easy observation.

I might argue that it is difficult to say that this is a planet instead of a brown dwarf, but this is pretty new territory. We can see it forming in the disk of a star (which is traditionally defined a planet), but it seems to be a bit above the deuterium burning limit of 13 Jupiter masses.

In any case, kudos to Jane and her team for pushing the limits knowledge of exoplanets.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Asteroids will kill us all!

Well, not really, I suppose. A new article in the journal Icarus describes how we might attempt to deflect near earth asteroids if they were on a collision course with Earth (purchase required).

There is a pretty good write up of the article at Ars Technica, which is free-er to read than the actual journal article (that is to say, it is free).

It is comforting to report that the basic gist of the article is that it is possible to save ourselves from a collision if we were watching the asteroids sufficiently far in advance to be able to deflect them decades before their actual collision with the Earth. At that point, we could apply a relatively small amount of force in order to knock the asteroid off its intercept course (that sounds Star Trekkie).

This brings up a good point, brought up by a friend a few years ago, when he attended a lecture about the statistics of destruction, and found that chances of dying by asteroid impact (1 in 20K) were higher than dying by tornados (1 in 60K). Since my home town just had horrible twisters late last week and my family spent the night in the hallway, this is especially timely for me. You are probably thinking, "how could dying by asteroid impact be common? I've never met anyone who's died by asteroid, but I know people die in tornadoes."

Well, it comes down to statistics, and the amount of destruction that an asteroid can inflict. Let's take easy numbers, and take a look. We know from geological evidence about how often large meteors hit the earth. There was a meteor in Russia in 1908 that knocked trees down in an 800 square mile area. Let's assume that one of these events happens every 100 years and can kill 50% of the inhabitants in a city. Let's also assume that for the next 1000 years cities will average about 10% of the land coverage in the world, and that over the next 1000 years the average size of a city will be 10 million people. So, over the next millennium, 10 large-ish meteors will hit the Earth, 70% will fall in the ocean, and 30% will hit the land. Of the 30% that hit the land, 3% will hit cities (because cities cover 10% of land). The 3% meteors will kill 50% of 10 million, so 150K on average over the 1000 years. This contrasts the 50 people per year who are killed by tornadoes, which would only mean 50K deaths from tornadoes over 1000 years. All of this should make asteroids scarier than tornadoes, but in this situation we don't really fear the unknown asteroids, we fear the tornadoes.

My numbers of course are all rough estimations, but it shows how important the work is to attempt to safeguard humanity against meteors. The tens of meter sized objects (like in Russia), are not really all that concerning (unless you are caught underneath it), but the hundreds of meter sized objects are. We might not get a second chance after something like that.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Virgin and Google having a little fun

Google and Virgin today announced product Virgle, a manned mission to Mars complete with an application, website, and video call to action.

Now, of course they are having a bit of fun, but what a great way to have a laugh. They've put together a full website that allows all of us who hope and dream to pretend, for just a bit, that perhaps we will get to Mars in our lifetime, and that perhaps, space exploration can become the purview of citizen scientists, instead of a few government employees.

Reading through their material certainly puts a smile on my face. Right now I am trying to think of what to put in my application video...