October 22, 2017

Review: Asia’s Space Race by James Clay Moltz.

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The political scene is changing, both in terms of space exploration and space exploitation, with new actors entering a modern and complex drama now unfolding in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) and beyond. This week, we take a look at Asia’s Space Race: National Motivations, Regional Rivalries, and International Risks by author James Clay Moltz out from Columbia University Press.  Moltz is a consultant to the NASA Ames Research Center and has written on the politics of space and its implications previous. But the modern space race isn’t you fathers completion borne out of Cold War rivalry. [Read more...]

13.06.10: Hayabusa: a Sample Return Update.

  14.06.10 Update: They got it… as of this writing, it looks like the sample return capsule safely touched down in the Australian desert intact!
A long trip home! (Credit: JAXA).  
A long journey home! (Credit: JAXA).
Earth looming as seen from Hayabusa. (Credit: JAXA).
Earth looming as seen from Hayabusa. (Credit: JAXA).
  (Note: As of this writing, the search for the sample return capsule is still underway in the Australian outback… expect updates here and on our Twitter feed as the day unfolds!) 

  Hayabusa returned to Earth today, lighting up the skies over the Australian outback and the Woomera restricted zone slightly before 10:00 AM EDT. Good captures of the fireball and the re-entry were confirmed, and the probe burned up after releasing the sample return capsule to plunge over the Australian desert. But the big mystery remains; did Hayabusa in fact capture and return a sample of asteroid Itokawa, and in doing so succeed in a first ever sample return from an asteroid? Of course, we may not truly know the answer to this long awaited tale for some time, as engineers must first recover and retrieve the capsule for further analysis. All indications were that the sample stirring pellet gun did not fire during the asteroid encounter, but there’s always the slim chance that material may have gotten stirred up and caught in the sample retrieval horn. Hayabusa slammed into the atmosphere today at a terrific speed of 27,000 mph, one of the fastest re-entries ever attempted. All space fans were present watching the action in the Australian night via Twitter and UStream, further evidence that the realm of new school media has in fact arrived. NASA & SETI’s joint reentry observation program was also aloft in a DC-8 for the event, watching to grab a spectroscopic analysis of the fireball as it plunged to Earth. The trail seen was quite bright, lighting up the thin scud of clouds as viewed from the surface.  Robin Whittle and his Wife Tina reported a fireball “brighter than Venus” from their locale 25 km west southwest of Port Augusta. Re-entry came at an angle of 10 degrees and had to endure temperatures of 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit during the decent. Toasts were raised worldwide as Hayabusa made its heroic return, a triumph for the Japanese Aerospace eXploration Agency (JAXA). Doubtless, it’ll be days to weeks for engineers to sort out the after action data; for example, scientists are still going over the Stardust aerogel returned from comet Wild years later.   A search of the Australian outback is underway and we’ll post more pics as we see em throughout the day… Kampai, Hayabusa! 


Video of the fireball in the Australian night… 

01:00 PM EDT: More dramatic pics have just come in via JAXA and the NASA/SETI team…

Image via JAXA's All Sky Observation System... (Credit: JAXA).

Hayabusa re-entry as seen by the JAXA Ground all-sky observation network. (Credit: JAXA).

  …and the most recent images from the joint SETI/NASA airborn observation program;

 Hayabusa re-entry...is that the sample return package flying formation to the right? (Credit: NASA/SETI).

Re-entry as seen from the air; is that a sample return capsule I see flying in formation to the lower right? (Credit: NASA/SETI).


06.06.10: Hayabusa Inbound!

Hayabusa's final trajectory. (Credit: JAXA).

Hayabusa's final trajectory. (Credit: JAXA).


   In one week, all eyes will be on the Australian desert as the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agencies’ (JAXA) Hayabusa spacecraft returns from its heroic mission. Hayabusa has been the original comeback kid, surviving solar flares, fuel leaks, software malfunctions and loss of stabilization and thrusters to hobble home on a looping orbit two years later than planned. Hayabusa sent back stunning images of the asteroid 25143 Itokawa in November 2005, and briefly “touched down” on the orbiting rubble pile in an attempt to gather a small sample. This was to be done via firing several small pellets at the surface, stirring up collection material from the asteroid. Although all indications are that the guns didn’t fire during the probes two ascents, there is always the possibility that dust may have been kicked up and collected in the probe’s sample horn. In any event, a successful container return, empty or not, would be a first from an asteroid. This return will occur on June 13th at about 14:00 Universal Time at the Woomera Test Range in Australia. The sample return capsule will come in at high velocity in night time skies similar to the Stardust comet return in 2006. Several teams will coverage on the area to document the plunge of the 16-inch capsule, including researchers from NASA Ames Research Center and the SETI Institute. Students from Brookline, Massachusetts will also be on hand for this exciting recovery. This tracking will be done aloft from a DC-8 aircraft, and the hopes are to obtain visible and near infra-red spectra as the spacecraft returns. Hayabusa has managed to get this far thanks to some innovative engineers and one surviving ion engine. As of this writing, TCM-3 course maneuvering began on June 3rd, and final precision course change will occur on June 10 to put it on track for Woomera. The craft will release the canister at a distance of 25,000 miles about three hours prior to entry interface; Hayabusa itself will burn up on reentry while the sample container will be slowed by drag chutes. Anyone who remembers the fate of Genesis in 2004 as it slammed into the Utah desert knows what a dicey maneuver this can be. Watch this space, and be sure to follow us on Twitter on and leading up to June 13th for all the latest Hayabusa updates!    

02.06.10: Dawn-A New Way to Explore the Solar System.


NSTAR electrostatic ion thruster under test. (Credit: NASA/JPL/Dawn).

NSTAR electrostatic ion thruster under test. (Credit: NASA/JPL/Dawn).


   An asteroid-bound spacecraft is also blazing a trail for technologies of the future. Dawn, NASA’s asteroid rendezvous mission blasted off from Cape Canaveral September 27th, 2007 enroute to explore the asteroids Ceres and Vesta starting next year. But unlike previous solar system missions, Dawn is able to do something that most interplanetary spacecraft can’t; change trajectories. Older traditional chemical rockets rely on their initial imparted thrust to get them on their way, but once that’s applied, the course is set. Beyond gravitational sling-shotting, little can be done to adjust their overall orbital paths, and you can’t park in orbit and visit interesting bodies, a major drawback. Dawn instead utilizes ion thrust engines. These provide a low thrust over a long period of time, rather than a chemical rockets’ high thrust in a short period of time. Although it requires Dawn a lengthy period to build up speed, its Xenon-solar powered drives ultimately win the race where specific impulse is concerned. This also enables it to carry a relatively light load of propellant. In fact, Dawn carries enough Xenon propellant for over 5 years of use. First proposed by none other than American rocket pioneer Robert Goddard in 1906, Ion based propulsion was first tested in 1959 at NASA, and utilized in the first  spacecraft aboard SERT-1 in 1964, and then more famously aboard Deep Space 1 in 1998. Many science fiction fans will remember the reference to ion drives in the original Star Trek episode “Spock’s Brain,” and the lineage can no doubt be traced further back in pulp Sci-Fi literature. Other spacecraft, such as the heroic Hayabusa returning to Earth next week and the proposed LISA Pathfinder, also utilize ion technology. Ion drive is well suited for asteroid exploration due to their low gravity fields, but in time missions bound for the major planets and moons could sport ion drives, as well. What Dawn will find as it nears the two asteroids is waiting to be seen; Vesta is a rocky terrestrial-type asteroid which may resemble early proto-solar material that formed rocky worlds like the Earth, and Ceres may even harbor a Europa-style environment, complete with ice enshrouded oceans! Dawn is scheduled to orbit Vesta for a year starting in July, 2011, and arrive at Ceres in February 2015. Perhaps, history will record that it was the ion-drive that truly opened up space exploration, and was ultimately how the solar system was won!

June 2010: Life in the Astro-Blogosphere.


A Curious "One Belted" Jupiter! (Photo by Author).

A Curious "One Belted" Jupiter! (Photo by Author).


   Summer is upon us, as most backyard astronomers begin to look forward to “crossing the hump” of the summer solstice. You won’t know it until fall, but the nighttime starts slooooowly creeping back into the northern hemisphere this month. What follows is a gathering of all things astronomical and what you can expect to see on the Astroguyz collective radar in the coming month; [Read more...]

27.04.10-Does Planetary Gravity “Stir up” Asteroids?

(Credit: Hayabusa/JAXA).

(Credit: Hayabusa/JAXA).

 The bizzare world of Itokawa as seen from Hayabusa.

   Asteroids are probably the most intriguing bodies in our solar system. More than just errant chucks of rock, these tiny worlds may hold the key to early planetary accretion. Several mysteries about these bodies persist; are they single slabs of rock, or loosely held together rubble piles? The question may be more than just an academic one, especially if we want to move one of these celestial missiles headed our way. Now, researcher Rick Binzel of MIT has noted a curious factor about many Near Earth Asteroids (NEA’s); nearly all which have experienced close passages near the Earth have seemed to undergo a spectral change. Specifically, the study looked at simulations of the orbits of 95 NEAs. Most are of the S-type, showing a reddish, sun burnt spectrum indicative of solar wind blasting for several million years. About 20, however, show a Q-type resurfacing, as if they had been “freshened up” somehow. Q-type asteroids are of the same spectral class as ordinary chondrite meteorites found on Earth, and are almost never observed in the main asteroid belt. Tracing back their orbits, all 20 show evidence of passages closer to the Earth than our Moon sometime in their history. Scientist Pierre Vernazza of the European Space Agency estimates that asteroids can be reddened by solar wind exposure in about one million years. Looking at asteroids such as 25143 Itokawa imaged by the Japanese Space Agencies’ Hayabusa spacecraft, one can easily imagine such a loose collection of rock experiencing massive landslides as it passes the massive Earth. Such an event may even splinter the main body, as happened to comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 in 1992 when it was torn apart and ultimately impacted Jupiter. And we have an unprecedented opportunity to study an NEA in 2029, when asteroid 99942 Apophis swings by Earth at a distance of about 20,000 miles above our surface. “My vision is that we would have (Apophis) all wired up and monitored so that we can listen to it creak and groan as it flies by,” says Binzel. Knowing what kind of shifting terrain they face might also be of vital importance to future visiting astronauts. A mission to such a body was stated by president Obama in a recent address given at the Kennedy Space Center. Clearly, these bodies are of unparalleled interest… all eyes will be on the Australian desert on June 13th of this year as Hayabusa returns to Earth. Did it successfully grab a sample of an NEA? Researchers won’t know for sure until they have the sample return canister in hand!