Space Highlights in 2009
Ok, let’s go over a few of my favorites, not in any particular order…
1> LCROSS Impact Study.
The slightly controversial “bombing of the moon” found significant amounts of water ice in the moon’s cold south polar regions and generated heat back home. Whether or not you think that water ice on the moon is important, you have to admit that the human interest this mission generated was profound. I won’t criticize the people who think that the mission did anything like significant damage to the moon (two more small craters on a crater saturated surface the size of Africa), because I think it is cool that folks are paying attention and that they care. Truth is: water is very heavy, lifting heavy stuff to the moon is very expensive, and humans need water—ergo, water already on the moon may be an important find for engineering a permanent manned presence on the moon. All I can say is, “Folks, turn your passion into an education, and then a career, in a space science related field.”
2> Ares Test Launch
Again, another key “baby step” in manned space flight. Some folks think it was a waste, because the rocket in this configuration is most useful for the space station mission, which they say will be finished before the rocket goes into full operation.
Truth is, it is only one, very significant, test of a future multi-role rocket system that will launch future manned moon and Mars missions. It also yielded much data that will be used in a broad range of areas, including the various commercial space flight endeavors currently underway.
The plans to de-orbit the space station is another issue. I think it’s wasteful and I think others will too. Hopefully, the ISS will prove so useful that they’ll figure out a way to give it an orbit boost and keep on using it longer than planned.
3> The International Space Station
The ISS is nearing completion and keeps hitting the news. The planned Earth and Space Science and Space longevity experiments have only just begun. A truly international effort, this project will yield unforeseeable fruits in public awareness of space related research, as well as the research itself. There is something about a permanently manned, globally produced orbiting structure that gets folks excited about space science and encourages related research and breakthroughs—several of which are discussed in the Commercial Space Flight Achievements heading below.
Sorry, I just had to include this other cool image.
It was taken from the ISS.
It is a shot of the volcanic eruption in June of the Sarychev Volcano in Russia’s Kuril Islands, northeast of Japan. Click on it for the larger view.
4> Hubble Refit
If I wanted to, I could fill this space with breath-taking pictures. This image of the Butterfly Nebula was a difficult pick and was taken after the upgrade.
Not only is Hubble back in business for the imaging work that it has always done so well, but now they’ve installed some even better instruments for more breakthroughs in the future.
5> Commercial Space Flight Achievements
Virgin Galactic rolled out it’s WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo, which will take the rich up for a joy-ride in space. They hope to bring the price down, but that isn’t the most exciting part. The WhiteKnightTwo Aircraft will fly the SpaceShipTwo Spacecraft to 60,000 feet before launching it. It employs a completely reusable, horizontal take-off, horizontal landing system that pioneers an important concept for other space launch applications. It is the newest generation of the X-Prize winning SpaceShipOne.
Wouldn’t it be cool to see a future generation of this spacecraft deliver astronauts to the space station…hmm?
SpaceX has also come a long way since winning an X-Prize. This year they announced a rocket-launched capsule that will be capable of ferrying cargo back and forth to the space station. In fact, NASA announced late in 2008 that they won the Commercial Resupply Services contract to fill-in after the Shuttle schedule ends next year. This year they have been working with NASA astronauts on the interface between their capsule and the ISS.
Masten Space Systems won the first place X-Prize in the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge in November. They also announced that they are taking reservations to launch sub-orbital science and educational payloads from Earth, straight up and straight down.
Price starts at $99 for a 350 gram, soda-pop can sized payload. Here’s the complete launch menu—as quoted from their website:
- Soda-can sized 350g payload: $99
- 1 kg custom payload: $250
- 5 kg custom payload: $1250
- Full Flight: Give us a call on this one – normally $75,000 (@ 100 kg) but educational discounts may apply.
So far as I know, these prices are unprecedented. If they pull it off they’ll provide what looks like the most down-to-earth launch availability and affordability package to date.
Even I can afford it—I wonder how many grams a banana weighs.
6> Mars Exploration
Yes, Spirit is stuck in the soft sand, but the lessons learned from the setback are significant. In the attached photo they even got one of the wheels that hasn’t worked in years to turn a few times as they tried to get the rover out. On the left is a wheel that’s stuck.
Understand that Mars is so far away that there is a significant time-lag for radio signals back and forth from Earth. It makes problem solving for robotic missions like this one extra difficult. If people lived there, they could just tell someone to walk over and lift it out.
For more cool 2009 space stuff, click the links below: