Category Archives: Space

The Falcon has landed

Written by Eike Pierstorff

A piece of the future that has been promised to me in my childhood had finally arrived when the reusable first stage of the Space X Falcon 9 rocket successfully landed upright after the mission successfully delivered a commercial payload to orbit.

There is a bit of a discussion if this indeed a historic event or if Space X merely comes second after Blue Origins successful landing  a few weeks earlier. Needless to say that I side with history on that one.  Falcon 9 was not a prototype tourist spacehopper on a test flight, it is a rather massive orbital vehicle that added an upright first stage landing to an already successful commercial mission.

The stackexchange space exploration site has a nice post discussing the differences. I was a bit amused to see that Blue Origins (and Amazons, evidently) Jeff Bezos congratulated Space X on the landing of its “suborbital booster stage” (as a repartee to Elon Musk congratulating to the suborbital Blue Origins test flight earlier), but really this is a bit petty. Yes, the first stage did not go to orbit (first stages never do – if they could we wouldn’t  need staged rockets at all), but its flight profile was still quite more ambitious than Blue Origins hovering (albeit at great height) in the air.

Next step (well maybe not the next, but it is getting closer): Mars. Other than I imagined as child I will not be on board the future ships that go there, but at least I might live to see the day, and that’s  really quite something.

    Check this out

    Written by Eike Pierstorff

    The Japanese space agency has published an amazing animation made from data from their Kaguya/Selene probe. This is a virtual tour through moons Tycho crater (named after astronomer Tycho Brahe, 1546 – 1601 [Wikipedia]). Phil Plait as badastronomy.com explains a bit about Tychos features (and links to the stunning lunar picture of  the day, a picture of Tychos central mountain).  Note that these are not actual movies/pictures, but are constructed from the data of Selenes instruments.

    With that I wish you a happy weekend, I will attend a family festivity over the weeekend and will be offline ’till sunday.

      Leo got the axe

      Written by Eike Pierstorff

      The german moon mission LEO – Lunar Exploration Orbiter – has now been officialy cancelled, according to the news magazine Tagesschau (Ludmilla Carone at scienceblogs.de (german) had already written about that). The given reason is the cost, although at 350 mio Euro from the federal budget doesn’t seem all that much for a moon mission.

      As far as I can tell the german, and actually the european policy on space projects is to fund projects that promise immediate return on investment (or at least allow to channel large amount of money to companys that must not be subsidized under european law. Maybe the people behind LEO should next time plan for a mission that allows to dish out a couple of billions to private companies to improve their chances).

      One might argue that an  “If we can’t eat it will won’t pay for it” attudite makes economic sense, but then we germans once believed that potatoes are inedible. Like the potato maybe the moon deserves a closer look.

        Ice on Mars

        Written by Eike Pierstorff

        Nancy Atkinson at Universe Today (pretty much the best ressource for space news) has an article about a presse conference by the team of the Phoenix Mars lander that gave some great news: They confirmed that a white substance that has been visible in some Phoenix photos is indeed water ice.

        Water is a prerequisite for life. Some people think that at some point there has at least microbacterial life on Mars, and this has just become a little more probable. Just as important, if humans ever want to build a permanent base on Mars it would be a lot easier if they haven’t to bring their own water from earth.

        Here is the original article from the phoenix web site.

          Space Loo or, human interest stories are not actually interesting

          Written by Eike Pierstorff

          The last few weeks have been extremly exciting for space aficionados. The Phoenix probe made it’s spectacular landing on Mars – spectacular because this spaceship is so heavy that parachutes were not enough to slow it down and NASA had to go for a rocket assisted descent. Spectacular is also a good word to describe the photos from phoenix’ landing shot by the HiRise spacecraft – see here and here (and while you’re at it read also the rest of Emily Lakdawallas blog at the planetary society website). Already Phoenix is returning fantastic images, including a pic of what might very well be ice on the martian surface (Martianchronicles is a great ressource, too). Water, frozen or not, is a prerequisite for life – either for life that has once existed on Mars, or for life (i.e. humans) that wants to permanently settle there.

          STS 124 (Shuttle Discovery) has delivered the other half of the Japanese Kibo Laboratory to the International Space Station – I guess especially Akihiho Hoshide was bursting with pride when the lab opened for business on wednesday.

          On other news we learned new stuff about the shape of our galaxy – apparently the milky way has only two major spiral arms (not four like previously believed), and how tightly the arms of a spiral galaxy are wrapped around their center seems to be in part determined by the mass of their central black hole.

          ESA has some fascinating images of the planet Venus (taken by Venus Express), and of course we still have Messenger, Kaguya, New Horizon etc.

          And yet…..

          And yet all these amazing feats and findings combined do not get as much attention as a broken toilet onboard the ISS. I don’t know if this says more about the media or about their audiences, but apparently the assembled wonders of the solar system are less newsworthy than the fact that some astronauts have to (figuratively) pee into a bottle for a few days. I cannot say how much this bugs me.

          I have a wonderful book about the Apollo moon landings that was published in the 1970s by the now defunct Kosmos Science magazine – without any “did they really do it or was it a hoax”-bullshit the author discussed the technical challenges and the fantastic success of the Apollo programme. Only at the end of the book he reflected a bit on the public reactions to the space programme. He wondered if the attention span of the public had been already overreached, and asked why NASA deemed it necessary to make publicity stunts like a bible reading from a spaceship, when the mere fact that people where flying around the earth in a spaceship was amazing and marvelous all by itself.

          But hey man, at least it was the bible. I mean, there is no god, but the bible is a culturally significant document with an undeniable impact on society. But these days even listening to bible thumping is considered to much of an intellectual effort for the audience – it seems the media prefers quite literaly to serve us shit instead.

            Yes, that’s us

            Written by Eike Pierstorff

            If you want to see something very, very beautiful you should point your browser to this page by the japanese space agency (do’h – broken link is fixed now) . It shows earthrise as seen from the Kaguya space probe that currently orbits the moon. That tiny blue marble that slowly climbs above the moons horizon, that’s us – the whole human habitat from a perspective that makes it look even more fragile.

            This is a dumbed down version for the web – the full res video (Kaguya carries a HDTV camera) is apparently available only for teachers and educators on DVD. I hope some day this will be released to the general public.

              Now, deliver

              Written by Eike Pierstorff

              I love, love, love the International Space Station (hey, what else could I say as a science fiction fan?) but so far it has done very little except to prove – since it has not floated away into space – that gravity actually works.

              I knew that.

              But yesterday, with some 16 years delay, the european space laboratory Columbus was connected to the ISS, enhancing it’s capability for science experiments – which is where I get a bit of a problem, since for all my enthusiasm I know only in very broad terms what actual experiments Columbus is supposed to do or what’s going to happen with the results, and the coverage on the websites of ESA and DLR is hardly exhaustive. Columbus was quite expensive (well, unless you compare it with what in a country like Germany is spent on cigarettes or alcohol or simply wasted) and it feels a bit odd to be left out of the loop when, as a matter of fact, my taxes helped to pay for the loop. Now that the thing is finally in place I expect detailed reports on what experiments are done, why they are worth the effort and if and how the results are released to the public.

              Having part in a space station is all very nice but it shouldn’t be an end in itself. We’re waiting for the goods so now, deliver.

                STS-122

                Written by Eike Pierstorff

                Space shuttle Atlantis (STS 122) is scheduled to launch Thursday, Feb 7, after the mission had been repeatedly postponed due to technical problems. Atlantis will carry the Columbus laboratory to the International Space Station which will greatly (finally!) enhance the stations capability to do some actual science.

                I hope everything works out this time. I’m a bit of a space enthusiast, so it would be such a perfect birthday present for me.

                  To the moon!

                  Written by Eike Pierstorff

                  Autumn is killing me (metaphorically) – with shorter days and the lack of sunlight I’m continually tired, an at the moment I’m glad when I finish paid work in time, so I would ask the people who asked for held for a little more patience (I know I make these excuses quite often, but there you go).

                  So while I can’t provide an update on the module I can at least give you a small update on what’s happening in space, because these last few days have been a good time for space exploration.

                  At Oktober 21. a soyuz capsule returned to earth from the ISS; part of the crew was Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor, the first astronaut from Malaysia. I was actually a little annoyed that his religion was so much a matter of public display – but then it’s probably just fair, Christians did it before with bible readings from orbit, and one has to commend Malaysias religious authorities that they managed to reconcile not religion and rationalism, which I think is impossible, but at least religion and pragmatism in such matters as prayer times and such. But as a life long Saganite I’m much more pleased with international cooperation.

                  A new crew member and new equipment is on it’s way to the International Space Station with STS-120 and the Orbiter Discovery. Shuttle Commander Pamela Melroy and her Crew deliver a new module – Node 2 a.k.a “Harmony” – to the station which will mainly serve as a connection point for other modules, including the european Columbus. Speaking as a european I can hardly wait. And it’s time that a bit more science happens at the ISS.

                  The International Space Station has been pretty much a failure so far, and I think this can be largely attributed to the fact that construction lags so far behind the planned schedule – Russia had a delay in manufacturing station components and there was another shuttle accident and the thing is by now much more expensive than planned (I nearly wrote “as expected”) and generally things haven’t been going to well. Phil Plait of Bad Astronomy fame hinted somewhat subtle (and a number of commenters brought the point home quite bluntly) that the station should be dropped althogether (if this were possible). I usually agree with what Dr. Plait says, not so much because he’s an expert but more because he is an expert who will happily eat his own words if it turns out he was wrong. But I still think the station should be finished, because if we – and it’s “we”, this is an international project – can’t even finish a project more or less at the front door then how can we ever think about building more ambitious projects (like e.g. interplanetary spacecraft) ?

                  But maybe there should be a lesson learned for later projects. I’m all for international cooperation (that Sagan thing again), but if possible partners should contribute complementary, not interdependent parts, so that a mission can still be sucessful when one piece is delayed or even fails.

                  Of course some people try to do things on their own (especially since they were obviously shunned from working on the ISS, I hadn’t been aware of that), which makes for the most exciting news – China has sent the Chang’e 1 probe to the moon, and that is only the first step in an rather ambitious space programm that is supposed to sent a man to the moon in the next 15 to 20 years. I guess by now a manned flight to the moon is not so much a matter of available technology and more a question if you are willing to spend the ressources (I’d venture that a moon base would be less expensive than the US war in Iraq…), which makes China the best candidate for a return to the moon – the Chinese seem to only ones willing to pull this off. Perhaps if we ask nicely they will sell us some tickets 😉

                  And speaking of the moon, Japan Kaguya probe has now reached an orbit from which it can start scientific observation – it’s a pity I don’t speak japanese (or ‘scientese’ for that matter), but I expect sooner or later some bits of data will trickle down to us english-speaking laypersons.

                  As I child I used to watch Space 1999 on television and being a child an sometimes unable to distinguish fiction from reality I was convinced that there would be a permant presence on the moon by the time I would grow up and I could buy a ticket to get there. Most annoyingly this hasn’t happened. But even if I can’t go there I hope somebody will.

                    Space Age

                    Written by Eike Pierstorff

                    I have to admit that my personal space age started in 1981 when the Space Shuttle launched successfully launched for the first time – the Shuttle was after all the first major development in space exploration I was old enough to appreciate. But for the world at large the space age started fifty years ago, at October 4th 1957 when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1, the very first artificial satellite into Earth orbit.

                    Instead of singing Sputniks praise myself I will leave that to the experts:

                    I’m pretty sure that there is something about Sputniks on the pages of the Russian Federal Space Agency, but I haven’t been unable to find it on the english pages (apparently there is something in russian, alas I can’t read that).

                    Today is also the third anniversary for the launch that helped Space Ship One, the first privatly owned manned Spacecraft, win the Ansari X-Price. More Info on the Scaled Composites website.