All posts by Steve Shurtleff

Another farewell…

news-111413aEarth said goodbye to another of the Great Ones with the loss of Alexander Serebrov on November 12th, 2013.

An experienced cosmonaut with over a year spent in space, Serebrov passed away at his home in Moscow at the age of 69.

Though the 2 missions to Salyut 7 were cut short with various problems, his flights to Mir were more successful and included the demonstration of the IKAR, a device used to maneuver about outside a spacecraft.

Serebrov retired from the cosmonaut ranks in 1995 to serve as a spaceflight advisor to Boris Yeltsin. The recipient of an impressive list of awards, he leaves behind a wife and one child.

But as always, this is not the end. As with all explorers, his spirit will continue making new discoveries.



Quoth the MAVEN, “Let’s do this.”

untitledThe space probe MAVEN (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN) is slated to embark today on her 10 month voyage to Mars.

Intended to study the Martian atmosphere as it is today, MAVEN will also attempt to determine what caused the loss of both surface water and most of the atmosphere Mars is believed to have once possessed.

Among the instruments MAVEN will take with her are packages designed to measure solar wind, ultraviolet imaging tools, and a mass spectrometer.

Using an Atlas V rocket to begin her journey, MAVEN will be lifting off the pad at 1:28 PM ET on November 18th, 2013. In case of delays, though, she can launch as late as December 7th and still rendezvous with Mars as planned. Missing that window, however, would result in a 26 month delay.

And that’s not all that will be headed for space in the next 7 days. 5 other launches will be taking place in various parts of the world with the purpose of long- and short-term satellite placement.

So congratulations to the MAVEN team and all others who look ahead!



Not all failure is failure

Dream_Chaser_pre-drop_tests_6Which would you rather fly in, a plane that never had so much as one glitch during development or a plane that had one or two bugs to be worked through while being tested?

I’d much rather fly in the plane that had the bugs worked out, as it’s the one that got more attention. Besides, better that than having a problem show up during a production flight, yes?

And this is why our confidence in the Sierra Nevada Dream Chaser manned craft just got a boost. Her first test flight occured on October 26th, 2013 and ended in a crash on the runway during landing when the port landing gear didn’t deploy. Initially thought to have flipped over, it was later determined that the vehicle came to rest upright, though it’s unclear how much damage she sustained in the accident.

On the bright side, Sierra Nevada officials did confirm that the crew compartment was intact and that all onboard systems were functional.

So why is this really a good thing?

Every mishap leads to improvement. Once it’s determined why the landing gear failed and the issue is fixed, it’s not likely to happen again. Besides, the current landing gear will be replaced with a different set anyway.

Personally, and this may sound odd, I’d sooner trust that than a system that hasn’t had any problems – yet. After all, even the Boeing 787 “Dreamliner” had battery problems that weren’t even detected until after delivery and a small number of fires.

Getting it right the first time is often an illusion.

This is why we dream.


50 Days…

out_there_webIt’s now November 5th, and you know what that means. That’s right.

50 days remain until December 25th.

I’ve been told by some that I’m unbelievably hard to shop for since I honestly don’t like a lot of “things” or “stuff” laying around. Besides, Christmas/Yule/Hannukah aren’t supposed to be about material things anyway, though they often seem to be.

However, they are supposed to be about giving, and tangible objects do lend themselves well to that. I stick with things I know will be useful, whenever possible, though it’s great if they can be fun as well.

Now, I’m biased here, for obvious reasons, but ‘Out There – A Small Guide to a Big Universe’ is both.

It’s also easy to find ( and is even affordable to pretty much anyone (under $5.00), not to mention you don’t have to deal with the mobs in the stores to get it. You don’t even need to get dressed; you can order it in your pajamas – go ahead, we don’t mind!

And as gifts go, it’s a pretty amazing little book that anyone can enjoy and learn from. It doesn’t explain absolutely everything the Universe has to offer, but it’s a good start.

Besides, he doesn’t want another tie, trust me, and I’d be willing to bet she isn’t interested in yet another pair of earrings.

You could give gift cards, but a present doesn’t get much more impersonal than that (“I wanted to get you something nice but couldn’t think of anything, so here you go.”).

So you can give your friends and family the usual mundane junk, or you can give them a glimpse of the Universe.

In the end, nothing beats giving someone a dream.


Suppose for a moment…

The Stromboli Volcano, Sicily

The Stromboli Volcano, Sicily

that there was a sci-fi television show about an exploration starship and her crew made back in the 1960’s that flopped at the time after only 3 seasons but then gained a huge following which led to 3 spin-off series, several films, and a “reboot” about the early days of the crew consisting of 2 movies so far starting in 2009.

I know, I know…that’s just crazy talk! Never happen…

You know what would be even crazier? If the 2nd of the reboot films began with the crew of the ship trying to stop a volcano from destroying a primitive culture by starting a cold fusion reaction at the volcanic summit.

Of course it’s insane! But bear with me…

What would happen if such a device existed and was used?

I’m no volcanologist, but I can see a problem with this. The magma vent may be plugged, but the pressure driving the magma through it would still exist.

Either the solidified magma “cap” would be sent flying into the air, followed by liquid magma again, or, if the “plug” went deep enough into the vent, the entire volcano would be blown to bits.

So what would happen if the plug held and the mountain didn’t explode?

My guess would be that a large fault would open up due to the pressure remaining in the magma chamber causing the ground to open up, at which point the magma would start oozing out of the ground rather than the mouth of the volcano. There’d also be a good chance of tectonic shift so there would be an earthquake as well as the eruption.

Of course, if the ground opened up far enough, it would swallow the primitive culture’s village anyway.

At best, the destruction would just be delayed, possibly only by a few seconds.

But you know what they say about good intentions and the best laid plans, etc.

So how would you solve the problem and save the villagers?



Then and Now

6sided_diceI grew up in the 70’s and 80’s, mostly in the 80’s.

In public school settings at that time, at least, kids were told that hard work pays off, and in that environment, it’s absolutely true. Study the material, do well on a test as a result, and get a good grade in the class. If the material is hard to understand, talk with the teacher or another student, get some help, and the subject becomes easier to grasp.

I won’t say that I was always good at following that scheme, but the fact remains, that’s how it worked.

Luck really didn’t enter into it.

Then May, 1990 happened and I was no longer a student, at least not for a while. I hadn’t concentrated on any particular course of study, and I left high school with no special skills of any kind.

But I had to do something, so the US Army it was, for all of a month. Why only a month? What happened?

Bad luck. I became rather ill during basic training and was discharged.

What’s the point?

Luck matters.

You can plan things out until your face falls off, and though that takes work, which certainly helps, all plans are subject to random factors.

Sometimes things just don’t work the way we’d like them to.

Does this mean it’s better to not try? Of course not. Hard work doesn’t guarantee success, but lack of effort definitely promises failure.

Experience has shown me, and probably you, that as much as some things don’t work, our efforts stand an equal chance of providing the results we do want to see.

Apollo 15 races for the Moon, July 26th, 1971

Apollo 15 races for the Moon, July 26th, 1971

And now we have private/commercial space, which is about as new as an industry can get. Lots of small companies and a few large ones are popping up all over the place. Some will do well, others won’t. Some will combine with others and grow larger, and of those, the same thing will happen.

Some will flourish, others will fold.

Why? Luck.

Given that, what’s the best way to proceed? Continue the efforts, of course.

Also, make alliances. Traditionally, companies compete with each other, but considering how many advances in science that private space could show us, maybe commercial space companies should work together rather than against each other. After all, the success of one doesn’t always necessitate the failure of another.

In the end, maybe it’s the right time, and the right field, to break the mold. Luck will still enter into it, good and bad, but cooperation will skew the odds in everyone’s favor here.



To Bb or not to Bb?

Doppler spectroscopy

Doppler spectroscopy

Part of the wonder of science is that it’s never the same from one moment to the next. A scientist can make an observation, develop a hypothesis, test the theory, and find it either correct or incorrect. If it’s correct, great! If not, even better!

Even better? Of course. It means that there is another chance to collect data and see what’s really going on.

Scientists live for that. It’s in their nature to be curious.

Given that, astronomers are turning cartwheels over Alpha Centauri Bb, a possible exoplanet orbiting Alpha Centauri, the nearest star to our own Sun.

Ongoing research has shown that it definitely is or isn’t there.

Three distinct groups of astronomers are conducting research, and all 3 of them, when asked, answer the question of the existence of Alpha Centauri Bb by saying, “Maybe.”

Doppler Spectroscopy, which detects minute changes in the velocity of the host star, indicated in October 2012 that a planet with a mass similar to that of Earth may be orbiting Alpha Centauri. While the mass of Bb is similar to Earth, it’s far too close to the star to support life.

In fact, if it really is there, it’s so close to Alpha Centauri that one year there lasts only about 3.25 days.

So what’s the problem?

Since the initial observation, scientists are having a difficult time confirming the data. After filtering out “noise” from known sources, like solar activity and influence from Alpha Centauri A, the data are now inconclusive.

There might a planet there, and there might not. Part of the problem is the sensitivity of the instruments used in detection.

So how can we be sure? The team that made the initial discovery has requested usage of the Hubble Space Telescope to verify their find using direct observation. If Bb can actually be photographed in orbit around Alpha Centauri, the mystery will be solved. This may also help in detecting other possible planets in that system.

Do we have other options? Of course, there are always alternatives. The possibility exists of sending a probe to Alpha Centauri, but any craft developed using current technology would need about 40,000 years to get there. While we’d never know the outcome of such a mission, just sending it could be our way of annoucing our presence. After all, since we’re not sure that there’s a planet there that could support life, we also don’t know that there isn’t.

Would it be worth it? Of course!



A long time ago…

Z8_GND_5296_CANDEL_cropYou’ve seen those words before, most likely referring to events in a galaxy far, far away.

Have you ever noticed, though, that how long ago and how far, far away are never actually specified?

Well, by default, it can’t have been longer than 13.8 billion years ago; that’s how long the Universe has been around. And after the Universe was formed, it took a bit of time for galaxies to begin forming, so we can now narrow it down to sometime in the last 13.1 billion years and less than 30 billion light-years away.

How? Good question…

On October 24th, 2013, Bahram Mobasher and Naveen Reddy announced the discovery of z8_GND_5296, the oldest and most distant galaxy discovered to date. Believed to be formed in the first 700 million years after the creation of the Universe, z8_GND_5296 is known to be about 30 billion light-years from Earth.

Now, before I go on, the answer is yes, I see the problem. If the Universe is expanding at the speed of light and it’s only 13.8 billion years old, how could another galaxy possibly be farther than 27.6 billion light-years away?

The answer is a concept called “comoving distance”, which essentially means that the measured distance between the observer and the object being observed doesn’t take the expansion of the Universe into account.

It’s also important to note that the expansion of the Universe isn’t limited to light speed. That’s right – even though it’s 13.8 billion years old, the Universe has a diameter of about 150 billion light-years, at a minimum.

It’s enough to make one’s brain hurt.

What it comes down to, though, is that it’s the oldest galaxy we know of – for now.

But given that we’re seeing z8_GND_5296 as it was 13.1 billion years ago, I wonder what it looks like now, and if there’s life there. Sadly, as things are now, it would take another 13.1 billion years to find out, and neither the Earth nor even our Sun will still be around by then. For that matter, humans won’t exist as we know them now either. We may have moved on and we certainly will have gone through some evolutionary changes by then.

So what can we do for now?




And you thought you had gas…

Tracing_the_origin_of_the_Magellanic_StreamYou’ve probably had it happen. You’re standing close to someone when you suddenly find yourself almost encircled by a ribbon of gas.

Imagine first noticing the ribbon almost 50 years ago with no sign of it letting up.

Now, imagine this on a galactic scale.

Naturally, you wouldn’t be able to smell it in space, but you’d be able to detect it through other means, like a telescope.

Well, this has happened.

Back in 1965, a stream of gas was observed in the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds, a couple of the Milky Way’s satellite galaxies. However, at the time, nobody was sure where it was coming from, unlike the situation mentioned above. Especially if you’re in an elevator.

Called the Magellanic Stream, it’s been discovered to be composed mostly of oxygen and sulfur along most of its length, with a larger amount of sulfur in the area close to the Magellanic Clouds themselves, now known to be the source of the ribbon.

In fact, spectroscopy has shown that the stream’s composition closely resembles that of the Large Magellanic Cloud, leading to the belief that the gas was somehow ejected from the small galaxy.

So why is this getting so much attention?

It’s huge. This particular stream is about 600,000 light-years long, starting at the Magellanic Clouds, but stretching almost haflway around the Milky Way – not through it, around it!

Just don’t light a match.



When the fire goes out…

220px-Apollo_synthetic_diamondOk, show of hands: How many of you have a fireplace?

Ok, good, thanks. If you didn’t raise your hand, you’re excused, but you can stay if you want.

Now, another show of hands: How many of those fireplaces are wood-burning?

If you didn’t raise your hand this time, get out. Who needs you?

Just kidding…we need you as much as we need those with wood-burners. Even if they’re cooler than you are.

Anyway, once the fire goes out, have you ever looked at the charcoal left behind? Of course not. That would be weird, and there are far better things to be looking at.

Like diamonds.

Even though they’re the same thing, the only difference being pressure. In fact, the same kind of pressure you’d find in the atmosphere of a gas giant like Jupiter or Saturn.

Isn’t it fitting, then, that scientists have found that there is a chance that it rains diamonds on both planets, and possibly on Uranus and Neptune also?

Carbon in the atmosphere descends and encounters sufficient pressure to be converted into diamond. And all of these planets have…wait for it…rings! Coincidence? I think not.

We’re not yet sure how long it takes for the conversion to occur there, but the same process on Earth takes millions of years. Remember that Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune are all far larger than Earth and therefore have far higher atmospheric pressures.

So could we collect some of these diamonds? Probably, but such an undertaking would be hugely expensive. In fact, a mission like that would probably cost more than any diamonds we might gather would be worth on the open market, not that they’d ever be available to the public.

Why not? We can’t even buy the samples brought back from the Moon, and those are, in the end, just rocks. If we get diamonds from another planet, we’ll be lucky to see photos of them.

Still, the possibility is there.


P.S. – I almost forgot…the pressure needed to create a diamond also generates an enormous amount of heat, and we all love the end result.

Still think being “cool” is so great?

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