May 31, 2020

Review: Beyond Earth by Charles Wohlforth and Amanda R. Hendrix

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What’s next in space exploration? We are literally at a crossroads now at the end of the second decade of the the 21st century, a time of crisis and opportunity. Sure, technology has come a long way, as we all carry exponentially more computing power in our pockets than was used to take humans to the Moon.

We also seem, however, to be stalled in low Earth orbit, as the moving goal post of humans on Mars always seems 20 years away…

We read an interesting road map that just might show us the way to get space exploration rolling again. Beyond Earth: Our Path to a New Home in the Planets by Charles Wohlforth and Amanda R. Hendrix out from Pantheon Press is an exciting look at what could be. Both authors draw off of their respective and extensive backgrounds in space exploration technology and the very latest developments and innovations in space flight.

And this sort of optimism is coming none to soon. Already, the gap between the end of the U.S. Space Shuttle program and the promise of SLS—another moving goal post—is longer than the transitional span between the final Apollo era mission (The Apollo-Soyuz test project) and the launch of space shuttle Columbia on STS-1. The James Webb Space Telescope is facing yet another delay, and one by one, our eyes in the outer solar system are going dark, as Cassini, Juno and New Horizons all wrap up their respective missions. And while it’s true that NASA is set to receive another budget boost in 2018, we’re stuck in a flip-flop loop from going to Mars, then the Moon, then back again with every change of administration.

Beyond Earth looks at the overall big picture, and what new players like SpaceX and their Mars or Bust vision might mean. I particularly like how the book flips from one chapter to the next between a future science fiction narrative versus modern science reality—there’s enough idea to provide sci-fi fodder here for any budding writer.

The core tenet, however driving Beyond Earth is not Mars, but a much more distant goal: the case for colonizing Saturn’s large moon, Titan. The authors correctly point out that the large moon has an atmosphere thick enough that bulky pressure suits aren’t needed… and dense enough that a wing suit equipped human could fly. There’s lots of methane and ethane fuel just lying around on the surface, and lots of available carbon for us carbon-based lifeforms. The chief problems presented by Titan are its chilly temperatures and immense distance from the Sun. Big problems for sure, but not insurmountable.

We still maintain that we need to start practicing with a self sustaining colony in Antarctica… a harsh but still much human-friendlier location than anywhere in the solar system.

The book also delves into real ideas for exotic virtual particle drives, ships that begin with a thrust gentler than a puff of air but eventually build up to enormous velocities. And while such a system might still be very much on the drawing board. Spacecraft such as NASA’s Dawn mission at Ceres used a similar Xenon-fueled ion drive to build up a small but dependable thrust.

be sure to read Beyond Earth to get a look at where 21st century space exploration may (hopefully) be headed.

Catch a SpaceX Launch from the Space Coast this Weekend

Liftoff for BulgariaSat-1.

Credit: SpaceX

Ready for some Fourth of July fireworks? Elon Musk’s SpaceX has really been racking ‘em up recently, with two launches from either coast last weekend, one each from Vandenberg AFB in California and another from Florida’s Kennedy Space Center with BulgariaSat-1. It’s almost starting to seem routine now. And we’ve got another launch coming up this weekend for a perfect trifecta on Wednesday, July 5th, as a SpaceX Falcon-9 rocket hoists Intelsat-35e into geosynchronous orbit. Part of Intelsat’s “Epic” constellation of satellites, Intelsat-35e will provide mobile and video communications across Africa, Europe, the Atlantic region and the Americas. [Read more...]

Astro-Vid of the Week: Watch the Launch of NROL-76

A successful static fire test on Tuesday.

Credit: Space X

Ready for a Sunday morning rocket launch? We’ve got ‘em, as SpaceX is set to round out the month of April with the launch of its Falcon 9 rocket from the Kennedy Space Center with NROL-76 for the National Reconnaissance Office. [Read more...]

Astronomy Video of the Week: Falcon Takes Flight

Liftoff of a Falcon 1 rocket

on its first successful mission.

Image credit: SpaceX

What’s it like to ride on a rocket? Seven years ago on this day in 2008, a Space X Falcon 1 rocket gave us an amazing external view as it soared above the Omelek Island launch facility and Kwajelein Atoll in the central Pacific. The first successful launch after a series of three earlier attempts, the SpaceX Falcon 1 successfully deployed a boilerplate mass simulator nicknamed ‘RatSat’ in low Earth orbit. The launch marked the first successful commercial space venture, and opened the door to a new era of space privatization. [Read more...]

Astronomy Video of the Week: A Ride with Dragon

Launch! Image credit: SpaceX


How would you escape from the launch pad in an emergency? Recently, SpaceX demonstrated just such a capability with the abort test of its Dragon capsule, carried out on May 6th at Cape Canaveral. This is a crucial step towards certifying the spacecraft for crewed missions, which are expected to begin in April 2017. Dragon went from 0 to 100 mph in just 1.2 seconds, and reached a maximum velocity of 345 mph. [Read more...]

Astro-Vid Of the Week: Catch the First Launch of 2014

A May 2012 night launch of a SpaceX Falcon 9 from the Cape. (Credit: NASA)

Breaking News: Word is that the Falcon-9 launch has now been pushed back to Monday, January 6th… stay tuned for updates!

The year in spaceflight starts with a bang this Friday, as SpaceX launches the Thaicom 6 satellite atop a Falcon 9 rocket headed for geostationary orbit. The launch is set to occur out of Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on the Florida Space Coast, and the 132 minute window opens at dusk on January 3rd at 22:50 UT/5:50 PM EST. This is just 10 minutes after local sunset, guaranteeing that the launch will be visible across the Florida peninsula as it heads out over the Atlantic. [Read more...]

Nov09:Life in the Astro blog-o-sphere.

Coming to a November Sky near you: This month’s big sky-buzz will be the Leonids meteors peaking the morning of November 17th. Although this will be an off year for the shower, the Leonids always deserve some close scrutiny because of their outburst track record. Also, the Moon is New on the 16th, and thus safely out of the “obstruction” zone. There is some buzz in the online meteor forums that there may be some older, not very well recorded debris trails lurking out there, so keep watching your local dawn sky on those early mid-November mornings. The Full Moon occurs the night of the 2nd, and is always a pretty naked eye sight. Casting our eyes farther out into the local universe, watch this space for pieces on such deep sky wonders as M31, Gamma Arietis, and a little known gem called Omicron Eridanus!

This Month in Science: On the 24th of this month Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was published 150 years ago. Of course, this demotion of man in the biological scheme of things pissed off some folks to no end, but hey, the truth hurts sometimes. Speaking of which, its time again this year for the Australian Skeptics annual Bent Spoon Award, given at their annual meeting held on the 28-29th in Brisbane. Be sure to watch the action on their site and keep an eye on current contenders! Farther down under, NASA’s Operation: Ice Bridge continues their bone-chilling mission of mapping the Antarctic ice flow. Don’t forget, it’s going towards austral summer down there! We’ve been having a great time following them via ye’ ole Twitter… closer to home, we here at Astroguyz will expose all you REALLY need to know about 2012 (as if you can’t get enough!) and look at a real-time human extinction event posed by Near Earth Objects (NEO’s) and what could be done about it…bring on the destruction!

This Months’ buzz in Sci-Fi: Starship: Flagship, the latest in the swashbuckling series by Mike Resnick, is due out this December and available for pre-order this month…also watch for our review of City Without End, by Kay Kenyon. On a semi-sad note, the box office sci-fi smash this Veteran’s Day is gearing up to be…you guessed it; 2012. three more years to go…. even Y2K only had a 6-month or so run! Hopefully, we at Astroguyz will at least be pleasantly surprised if the movie isn’t a dud… we still think that if the world did end in 2012, humanity would be getting off easy! On a more serious note, in a recent episode of the new season of the Big Bang Theory, Shelton was….WRONG! Can the universe survive the paradox?

Launches for November: The Shuttle Atlantis is sitting on launch pad 39B for STS-129 on the 16th; this will be Atlantis’s 2nd to last flight into space. Other notables include launch of the ESA, Soil Moisture and Salinity satellite on the 2nd out of the Plesetsk Cosmodrome, and testing of the SpaceX Falcon automated resupply craft for the ISS on the 29th. Check Spaceflight now for updates.

Astro-Blooper of the Month: Re-watching the earlier seasons of NUM3ERS, I caught a goof that deserves further scrutiny. There’s a point when Larry the astrophysicist is departing for the International Space Station. He then gives his girlfriend Megan a Celestron telescope, so she can “See me as I pass overhead…” Yes, you can photograph the ISS with a telescope, but it is a swift moving target! Larry could be forgiven because, after all, he is a theorist, but NUMB3Rs is a class show, and I won’t let it off of the hook that easily! It was also an excellent, but missed opportunity to teach some hands on science…many folks don’t realize that you can see the ISS with the naked eye! A much better gift (and free!) would have been to install Orbitron, complete with ISS alarm, on Megan’s laptop!

This Month in Astro-History: On November 19th, 1969, Apollo 12 landed on the Moon. Of course, no one remembers the 2nd lunar landing, but astronauts Alan Bean and crew performed a pinpoint landing next to the Surveyor spacecraft in the Ocean of Storms, and did some real science, to boot. Their Saturn V was also struck by lightening on takeoff, (launch restrictions were looser in those days) and there was no guarantee that the pyro technics that fired the chute on re-entry were not damaged, until they in fact were safely home!

Quote of the Month: “If doom isn’t impending, it’s out there, somewhere.”

-Andy Rooney