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Published: Sun, 22 Apr 2018 00:00:00 -0400

Last Build Date: Sun, 22 Apr 2018 11:32:46 -0400


Brickbat: Who Ordered the Satellite?

Wed, 28 Mar 2018 04:00:00 -0400

(image) The spending bill signed by President Donald Trump last week includes $600 million in the Air Force budget for two satellites the service did not ask for. Lawmakers say they just want to make sure the Air Force will be able to replace any satellites in that system if it needs to.

Trump Wants to Privatize the International Space Station

Mon, 12 Feb 2018 15:53:00 -0500

The Trump administration is going to think about thinking about considering ending federal funding for the International Space Station (ISS) in 2025. Cue a bunch of people freaking out about the prospect of space station privatization. Before we get into the nitty girtty—a note: if I had a nickel for every major goal set by an American president for the space program with a time horizon of 6 to 20 years, I'd have enough money to continue funding the ISS well past 2025. Every administration comes up with its own blueprint/roadmap/guidebook to go to the moon/Mars/Alpha Centauri with all of the major deadlines conveniently kicking in long after the relevant president is somewhere on a yacht moored outside his presidential library. These plans rarely come to fruition, and even incremental steps are frequently reversed. Here's the plan, such as it is: "The decision to end direct federal support for the ISS in 2025 does not imply that the platform itself will be deorbited at that time—it is possible that industry could continue to operate certain elements or capabilities of the ISS as part of a future commercial platform," a document obtained by The Washington Post states. "NASA will expand international and commercial partnerships over the next seven years in order to ensure continued human access to and presence in low Earth orbit." Today's shiny new budget contains $150 million in fiscal year 2019 (and more slated for later) "to enable the development and maturation of commercial entities and capabilities which will ensure that commercial successors to the ISS—potentially including elements of the ISS—are operational when they are needed." Gradually handing over low Earth orbit to the private sector has been the incremental policy of at least three administrations, though it has been implemented in fits and starts, due largely to powerful senators who would like to keep lucrative space earmarks intact in their districts. The International Space Station is a little trickier for reasons that are right there in the name—a lot of other nations have stakes in the sky hotel/lab, and it's not at all clear they'd be keen rejigger their elaborately negotiated agreements. Pretty much every step of space privatization has been accompanied by this type of hysteria. There's something about space that's transpartisan in the worst possible way, bringing together the "no one would ever do pure science if it weren't for the state" lefties with the "American greatness requires that we build huge rockets with flags on them" righties. In fact, last week's successful Space X Falcon Heavy rocket launch ticks an awful lot of the boxes that the old school shuttle launches once did, and once we stick human beings on top of on those things, we're pretty much all of the way there. Now, privatization done badly is bad. That should go without saying, but it doesn't. So let's say it. Privatization done badly is bad. Handing off the United States' stake in the ISS to an entity insufficiently prepared to run it properly would not be good stewardship of a valuable asset. (Also worth noting: Boeing, a private company, currently operates the space station for NASA, for $3–4 billion a year. And Boeing, unsurprisingly, thinks that the goal of ending federal funding to operate the space station is a really, really bad idea.) The secret NASA docs say that the agency "will request market analysis and business plans from the commercial sector and solicit plans from commercial industry." Great idea. In fact, this wouldn't even be the first time a cost-cutting government fobbed a space station off on a private firm. When the Russians were looking to shed some space costs in the late 1990s, they leased the Mir space station to an American outfit with plans to use it as a hub for space tourism. The lease was modeled after a terrestrial real estate lease. In the end, that experiment was not a success, but given that the alternative really was to let the thing burn up in the atmosphere—to actually be deorbited—it was a reasona[...]

Pentagon Investigates UFO Sightings and an Interstellar Visitor Zips Through Solar System

Tue, 19 Dec 2017 15:00:00 -0500

It's strange convergence time. Just as Oumuamua, the first detected alien visitor from another star system zips through our solar system, the New York Times reveals the existence of the Pentagon's secretive Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program that has been investigating reports of unidentified flying objects since 2007. Oumuamua, a reddish cigar-shaped body 1,300 feet in length, was detected on October 19 by astronomers associated with the University of Hawaii who are part of the worldwide Near-Earth Object discovery effort. According to the Washington Post, its unusual shape prompted Andrew Siemion, director of the Berkeley Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Research Center, to observe, "The possibility that this object is, in fact, an artificial object — that it is a spaceship, essentially — is a remote possibility." In an attempt to see if Oumuamua might be an interstellar spaceship, the Breakthrough Listen project funded by Russian billionaire Yuri Milner turned the Green Bank Telescope toward the object. Breakthrough Listen monitors billions of radio frequencies across the 1 to 12 GHz range in search for evidence of technological life in the universe. It aims to survey one million nearby stars, the entire galactic plane and 100 nearby galaxies at a wide range of radio and optical bands. The Breakthrough Listen researchers have detected no signals emanating from Oumuamua. Much closer to home, the Pentagon has quietly been investigating reports of various unidentified flying objects, including the analysis of video taken by military planes of unexplained aerial phenomena. Luis Elizondo, who resigned as head the Department of Defense's UFO program in October, told CNN, "My personal belief is that there is very compelling evidence that we may not be alone." How would Americans react to the announcement that alien life had been discovered? Most evidence suggests they would not freak out. A survey commissioned by 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment in August found that 47 percent of Americans believe in aliens and 39 percent believe that "aliens have visited Earth before." Only 17 percent, however, report having seen UFOs themselves. One of the more tongue-in-cheek questions on the survey asked whom respondents would volunteer to be abducted by aliens. Some 17 percent said that they would volunteer themselves (I would). A global survey released on December 14 by Dutch researchers involving more than 26,000 people from 24 countries finds: 61 percent of people believe that there is some form of life on other planets. 17 percent rule this out and only 22 percent say that they don't know. 47 percent of people believe in the existence of intelligent alien civilizations in the universe. 26 percent rule this out and 28 percent say that they don't know. 25 percent believe that the first form of life on earth arrived here from another place in the universe. 39 percent do not believe this and 36 percent say they don't know. Of the 47 percent people who believe that advanced alien civilizations exists, 60 percent say that humans should try to get in contact with these civilizations. 21 percent say that we should not try and seek contact and 19 percent say that they don't know. Earlier this month, researchers from Arizona State University confirmed in two studies this generally positive attitude among Americans toward the discovery of alien life. In one study, researchers analyzed the language used in various news reports from 1967 to the present suggesting the discovery of alien life. The language used in those reports skewed positive. The researchers then asked 501 subjects recruited online through Mechanical Turk to write responses to two questions: How would they react to the annoucement of the discovery of alien microbial life and how do they think the public at large would respond? LiveScience reports that most participants "felt they, personally, would respond to the announcement of microbial E.T.s with a little more positivity than the pub[...]

The Martian's Andy Weir Talks Economics (and Sex) on the Moon in Artemis: Podcast

Fri, 24 Nov 2017 10:05:00 -0500

"One thing we've learned from The Phantom Menace is don't start a story with a dissertation of economics," says Andy Weir, author of The Martian. Last week he released a new novel, Artemis, about a settlement on the Moon. Where The Martian, which was turned into a blockbuster starring Matt Damon, is powered by plot-driving engineering mishaps and triumphs, Artemis gave Weir a chance to unleash his inner "economics dork." The political economy of the moon is a fascinating part of the new book, featuring guilds, crony capitalism, reputation mechanisms, a non-state quasi-currency, sex tourism, smuggling, and more. Reason magazine Editor in Chief Katherine Mangu-Ward talks with Weir about life on the moon, his desire to read more hard science fiction, why he thinks we don't have to worry about protecting Mars' ecosystem, zero gravity honeymoons, and the fact that he doesn't much care how or where SpaceX's Elon Musk dies. Audio production by Ian Keyser. Subscribe, rate, and review the Reason Podcast at iTunes. Listen at SoundCloud below: src="" width="100%" height="300" frameborder="0"> Don't miss a single Reason podcast! (Archive here.) Subscribe at iTunes. Follow us at SoundCloud. Subscribe at YouTube. Like us on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter. This is a rush transcript—check all quotes against the audio for accuracy. Katherine Mangu-Ward: Today I'm talking with Andy Weir. He's the author of the bestselling novel The Martian, which was turned into a blockbuster starring Matt Damon. He has a new book out called Artemis. Thank you for joining us Andy Weir. How are you doing? Andy Weir: I'm good. Thanks for having me. Mangu-Ward: You've got a new book out, it's a follow up to The Martian but it takes place on the Moon, called Artemis. Tell us a little bit about why the Moon. Weir: I wanted to write a story about the first human city that isn't on Earth. There are really only three locations that that's likely to be. Either low Earth orbit or the Moon or Mars. Lower Earth orbit is an immediate no go because you have to transport every gram of material you'd have to transport up there. There's no local materials to use. But Mars and the Moon have lots of material to use that you can build your city out of. Between those two, the Moon is better for whole bunch of reasons. First off, it is ludicrously closer. If you were standing on a football field and you were at one goal line and Mars was at the other goal line, the Moon would be four inches in front of you. That's the difference in scale of how far apart these things are. Then, the other thing is it's close enough Earth that you could have regular trade and tourism if the price were right. Mangu-Ward: The Martian is more about exploration, Artemis is more about colonization or settlement. Did you find that those problems were fundamentally different when you sat down to write? We think here at Reason a lot about what do frontiers mean for civilization, what does it mean for people to have an idea of an uncharted place? But one thing I was struck by in your description of the Artemis settlement on the Moon was how settled in it felt. How weirdly normal. Weir: The story takes place 20 years after the founding of the city. It's not just super early days but it is still very much a frontier town. It's only got a population of about 2,000 people and the problems that you have to solve for long term habitation are completely different than the problems you have to solve just for exploration and visiting. Mangu-Ward: Yet in both, our hero is always going to die. Weir: Our hero's always going to die? Mangu-Ward: Well, there's constant peril. You gotta have some peril. Weir: Yes, I see what you're saying. Yes, always seems to be a problem for our poor hero. Mangu-War[...]

The Planetary Protection Racket

Thu, 10 Aug 2017 06:00:00 -0400

The request by NASA for a new "Planetary Protection Officer" salaried at $187,000 per year has provoked some hilarity, but the problem is much greater than the hiring of another useless overpaid bureaucrat. In fact, NASA's planetary protection program serves no function but to cripple the space program at a cost to the taxpayers of billions of dollars. The program calls for protecting Mars and Earth from "contaminating" each other, but there is not one shred of evidence to support the notion that life of any kind, let alone pathogens of macrofauna or macroflora, or free-living microbes with superior adaptation to the terrestrial environment than native species, exists on the Martian surface. The Viking 1 and 2 landers directly tested Martian soil, and found it free of organic material down to one part per billion accuracy. The Martian dust is mixed on a global basis. If there is no organic material in the dust at the Viking landing sites, there is none in it anywhere. The Viking landers also detected strong oxidizing agents in the Martian dust, which would destroy any microbes exposed to it. So we not only know that the Martian soil is sterile, we also know why it must be sterile. Even in the absence of the sterilizing oxidizers detected by Viking, conditions on the Martian surface are such so as to preclude active microbial metabolism. Active life cannot exist without liquid water. There is no liquid water on the Martian surface. If, despite all the above, there somehow were Martian surface microbial life, then it is already here. The Earth is struck by about 1,000 pounds of Martian meteorite a year. These rocks have been ejected from three different sites during the past 10 million years or so. A conservative linear extrapolation backwards (conservative because impact rates were higher in the past) over the past 3.6 billion years then indicates that the terrestrial biosphere has already received some 3.6 trillion pounds of samples from Mars coming from over a thousand different sites scattered across the planet. Examination of samples of this material show that perhaps 10 percent of it is ejected unshocked, which means bacteria could survive the ejection event. There is also little doubt sizable fractions of the ejected putative bacteria could survive the interplanetary transfer and re-entry at Earth as well. In light of this, planetary protectors need to explain why building a Maginot Line around NASA's 1 pound sample is a worthwhile activity while Mother Nature, laughing at their quarantine orders, continues to deliver thousands of pounds of uninspected and unsterilized materials to Earth. The argument is not whether measures should be taken to protect the Mars sample from terrestrial contamination. Everyone agrees that such measures should be taken to preserve the scientific value of the sample. The issue is whether foundationless fears should be allowed to distort the mission so as to increase the chance of failure. NASA lost two Ranger lunar missions due to completely pointless spacecraft sterilization measures demanded by the planetary protection folks. Now, as a result of their demands, in 1998 Jet Propulsion Lab adopted a mission protocol for the Mars Sample Return stating that if signal confirming sample confinement was lost from a returning sample craft, the return vehicle would be directed to bypass the Earth. Think about that. We have already spent three decades planning a Mars Sample Return mission, and it is likely we'll spend at least another. Before it's done, several billion dollars will be spent in an effort to get a sample from Mars. The planetary protection office has greatly increased the cost and risk, and delayed the schedule of the Mars Sample Return, by requiring that it be done with multiple spacecraft and in-space rendezvous in order the "break the chain of contact with Mars." If not for them, using the 2,200-pound landing capability demonstrated on the Curiosity mission, we could lan[...]

The Surprisingly Long History of Private Space Exploration

Sun, 23 Jul 2017 06:00:00 -0400

The Long Space Age: The Economic Origins of Space Exploration from Colonial America to the Cold War, by Alexander MacDonald, Yale University Press, 272 pages, $35 Sixty years ago, the Soviets launched Sputnik and, with it, the space race. For Americans who grew up since then, the exploration of space has always been linked closely with the government. Private space companies such as SpaceX and Blue Origin may have had successes, but they still arouse skepticism from people who cannot imagine anyone other than NASA or its foreign rivals sending people to the cosmos. But in The Long Space Age, the NASA historian and economist Alexander MacDonald uncovers a rich, multi-century history of privately funded space exploration. In the long view, the age of government-funded space travel may be a just a temporary detour from an older tradition. In the beginning, the exploration of space took place from here on Earth, with the astronomical observatories of the late 18th through mid-20th centuries. These were funded by subscriptions from local community boosters, by donations from wealthy patrons, and only occasionally by the government. The resources devoted to these projects were equivalent to those of many modern space missions, often as much as a billion current dollars. The feds did fund some successful projects, such as the Naval Observatory and the Smithsonian. But there were also many failures, including a national astronomical observatory proposed by President John Quincy Adams, an amateur astronomer, who warned of the dangers of falling behind the Russians' large telescope. (Think of that as the first space race.) Congress batted down the idea, with members arguing that this was not a federal responsibility. Space rockets, similarly, were at first a mostly private enterprise. MacDonald recovers the largely forgotten history of Robert Goddard, the American inventor of the liquid rocket, whose work was funded by the Guggenheim Foundation and others. Similarly, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, later absorbed by NASA, started as a student rocket project in the 1930s in an arroyo near the California Institute of Technology. Not until the 1940s was most rocket science conducted on the government's dime. Why did private funders pay for telescopes and rockets? Often, it wasn't about the science so much as the signaling. For example, Charles Yerkes—notorious for monopolizing streetcars in Chicago by means both fair and foul—helped finance the Yerkes Observatory in Wisconsin to signal his fundamental beneficence and to rehabilitate himself in the public eye. Any revised perception of Yerkes' character didn't last long, but the facility itself did, and a great many discoveries were later made there. This motive hasn't disappeared in the age of NASA. The Apollo missions signaled that our space technology was superior to that of the Soviets, a goal that remains a driving force behind publicly funded human spaceflight. For many in Washington it doesn't matter much whether we have actual space accomplishments, as long as we maintain the appearance that we are on our way to achieving things in space. For philanthropists and subscribers to private telescopes, the aim was to signal that their town or college was ahead of its competitors in science and technology. The science itself often took a back seat: It was always easier to raise money to build a monumental observatory with a donor's name on it than to endow astronomers to actually use it for new discoveries. And the subscription model frustrated the scientists, who had to give up observation time to the subscribers who had paid money for the privilege of looking at planets through telescopes. The modern equivalent of that comes when planetary scientists have to divert mission resources—power, mass, bandwidth, money—from scientific instruments to cameras on space probes, so the taxpaying public can view gorgeous pictures. The last great private[...]

The United Martian Emirates

Thu, 11 May 2017 10:05:00 -0400

Once it became clear that "bizarre building plan from the United Arab Emirates" was basically a regional subgenre of science fiction, something like this was probably inevitable:

(image) Earlier this year, the United Arab Emirates' grabbed the world's attention when Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum announced a plan to establish a colony on Mars by 2117. Officials have been relatively mum about the details of the "Mars 2117 Project"—but [Tuesday] a person helping to lead the endeavor discussed how young Arab people will lead the mission....

According to early mockups, the UAE colony will involve some pretty advanced infrastructure, though more formalized models have not yet been made public.

If there's one thing the UAE is great at producing, it's "early mockups" of cool-looking structures. The structures themselves frequently fail to get built, but don't let that stop you from enjoying the images:

[Hat tip: Bryan Alexander.]

Elon Musk Wants You To Be Able To Afford To Move to Mars

Tue, 27 Sep 2016 15:54:00 -0400

Right now, Space X founder Elon Musk is giving a Steve Jobs–style presentation of his plan for Mars colonization. It's part science lecture ("Here's a slide with the different types of rocket fuel"), part time-share presentation ("It'll be, like, really fun to go, you'll have a great time."), part TEDtalk ("Technology does not automatically improve, it only improves if a lot of really strong engineering talent is applied to the problem"), part in-joke extravaganza (the slide marked FUNDING starts with "Steal Underpants").

Here's a good writeup of what we already know about the technical specs of the mission: He's talking about a 2018 start with a 2024 manned launch to Mars building on tech Space X is already using to provision the International Space Station.

From the presentation, here are three key Venn Diagrams. They are simultaneously duh and oooh:




This notion, that a vanity project for the rich could become a new frontier for the middle class, is too often overlooked. It's central to Musk's motivation and it should always have been central to our understanding of space colonization and exploration. It hasn't been, until now.

Rocky Earth-Sized Planet Found Circling Nearest Star

Wed, 24 Aug 2016 13:50:00 -0400

(image) Astronomers from the University of Texas at Austin have just announced that they have discovered evidence that a rocky planet slightly larger than the Earth is orbiting Proxima Centauri, the closest star to Sol. The planet orbits its star in 11 days, but because Proxima Centauri is a cool red dwarf star, its surface temperature is low enough to be suitable for liquid water and thus lies within the conventionally defined habitable zone around the star. The new exo-planet is named Proxima b.

If this result stands, the new private Breakthough Starshot program will have an excellent target at which to aim. As reported earlier:

A fleet of laser-boosted nanocraft could be on their way to the Sun's nearest neighboring star, Alpha Centauri in a couple of decades. Breakthrough Starshot is the ambitious proposal announced by Russian internet entrepreneur Yuri Milner in New York [in April]. As outlined by Milner, the idea is that a fleet of gram-sized spacecraft - StarChips - kitted out with diaphanous lightsails will be boosted into orbit and then blasted with a ground-based "light beamer" consisting of phased 100 gigawatt array of lasers. Traveling at 20 percent of the speed of light, a fleet of StarChips would make the trip in only 20 years.

Of course, if warp drives were available (and consistently described), it would take perhaps 3 days to get there at Warp Factor 3.


SpaceX Foots the Bill for 2018 Mission to Mars

Thu, 28 Apr 2016 12:26:00 -0400

SpaceX announced plans to send an unmanned capsule to Mars by 2018 on Twitter yesterday: Planning to send Dragon to Mars as soon as 2018. Red Dragons will inform overall Mars architecture, details to come — SpaceX (@SpaceX) April 27, 2016 Right now, Dragon capsules ferry cargo to the International Space Station as part of a $5.5 billion contract with NASA. But SpaceX founder Elon Musk has made it clear that the capsules are built for more than just hauling shipments of astronaut ice cream, tweeting that "Dragon 2 is designed to be able to land anywhere in the solar system. Red Dragon Mars mission is the first test flight....But wouldn't recommend transporting astronauts beyond Earth-moon region. Wouldn't be fun for longer journeys. Internal volume ~size of SUV." Veronique de Rugy labels Musk a crony capitalist in her column today, noting (quite correctly) that companies he has founded have received many billions in federal taxpayer dollars, state incentives, and more. But it's worth highlighting that for this ambitious 2018 mission, Musk is footing the bill—despite some warm, fuzzy press releases about partnering with NASA. One might consider some of those private funds his firm is spending on the mission ill-gotten gains, I suppose. But SpaceX has delivered the services it promised for those NASA billions so far; though not without the occasional mishap. And the company has done so under a type of contract that keeps much more of the incentives to behave like a profit-maximizing private actor (rather than an old-school appendage of the bloated space agency, like Boeing or Lockheed) intact. The Washington Post reports that NASA will providing only "technical assistance" for this first unmanned mission to Mars, quoting space historian John Logsdon saying that "NASA has more expertise in getting to and landing on Mars than any other organization in the world....So if a U.S. company wants to try it on a no-exchange-of-funds basis, why not?" For a while now, Musk has been beefing with science celeb Neil deGrasse Tyson about whether a Mars mission is an appropriate undertaking for a private entrepreneur. Last fall, Tyson said "The delusion is thinking that SpaceX is going to lead the space frontier. That's just not going to happen." Calling a Mars mission too time-consuming and expensive, Tyson declared: "A government has a much longer horizon over which it can make investments." But, as space journalist Alan Boyle notes in GeekWire, Musk seems perfectly cheerful about the expense and rather more optimistic than Tyson about the time horizon. He's been pretty clear about how he hopes to overcome commercial pressure to think short term—the company will remain privately held for now. "When we're doing regular flights to Mars, that might be a good time to go public," he said. "But before then, because the long-term goals of SpaceX are really long term—it takes a long time to build a city on Mars—that doesn't match with the short-term time frame of public shareholders and portfolio managers that are looking at the two- to four-year time horizon." In other words, Musk thinks that this insanely huge undertaking will be good for his business in the long term. So much so that he's putting up cash now and delaying the big payday that would come with going public. And frankly, it's hard to doubt the sincerity of a man who has said repeatedly over many years that he hopes to die on Mars (though ideally not at the point of impact).[...]

A Private Trip to Alpha Centauri: Breakthrough Starshot*

Tue, 12 Apr 2016 19:31:00 -0400


A fleet of laser-boosted nanocraft could be on their way to the Sun's nearest neighboring star, Alpha Centauri in a couple of decades. Breakthrough Starshot is the ambitious proposal announced by Russian internet entrepreneur Yuri Milner in New York today. As outlined by Milner, the idea is that a fleet of gram-sized spacecraft - StarChips - kitted out with diaphanous lightsails will be boosted into orbit and then blasted with a ground-based "light beamer" consisting of phased 100 gigawatt array of lasers. This would get the StarChips traveling at about 20 percent of the speed of light enabling them to reach Alpha Centauri in just over 20 years. According to the Breakthrough announcement of the project:

The Alpha Centauri star system is 25 trillion miles (4.37 light years) away. With today’s fastest spacecraft, it would take about 30,000 years to get there. Breakthrough Starshot aims to establish whether a gram-scale nanocraft, on a sail pushed by a light beam, can fly over a thousand times faster. It brings the Silicon Valley approach to space travel, capitalizing on exponential advances in certain areas of technology since the beginning of the 21st century. ...

Breakthrough Starshot aims to bring economies of scale to the astronomical scale. The StarChip can be mass-produced at the cost of an iPhone and be sent on missions in large numbers to provide redundancy and coverage. The light beamer is modular and scalable. Once it is assembled and the technology matures, the cost of each launch is expected to fall to a few hundred thousand dollars.

Milner plans to spend $100 million on the research and engineering program to demonstrate proof of concept for the project.

This is not the first time Milner has financed visionary projects. Last year he announced that he is bankrolling the Breakthrough Listen project with the Unverisity of California Berkeley. That project will use radio telescopes to search space for signals from extraterrestrial intelligences. He has committed $100 million over the next ten years to Breakthrough Listen.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and Cambridge University physicist Stephen Hawking will join Milner on the board of the Breakthrough Starshot project. The executive director will be Pete Worden, former director of NASA Ames Research Center. 

Bon Voyage!

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*To those commenters who alerted me to this, many thanks (you know who you are). My apologies for getting to it so late in the day.

Will Giant Sticky Space Roombas Solve Our Space Junk Problems?

Tue, 12 Apr 2016 13:15:00 -0400

Space junk is annoying now—small objects have already popped holes in the International Space Station—but it will become an increasingly serious problem as we enter the era of cheap, frequent commercial launches. (Pretty solid work in April, by the way, SpaceX and Blue Origin. Kudos.)  Just in the last month, debris was spotted flaming over the Sri Lankan coast and a rogue object was briefly blamed for knocking out Japan's new research satellite (unfairly, as it turned out). Enter Astroscale, the Singaporean company that just received $35 million in funding to work on clearing out some of the estimated 150 million pieces of junk floating around the ol' blue marble—especially antique microsatellites, which have a relatively short two- to five-year lifespan and will soon be deployed by the dozens and hundreds for all kinds of reasons, including mapping and communications. Here's the plan: Step 1: Find the junk. Astroscale will do this using a Japanese microsat called OSG IDEA 1 launched on a Russian rocket, designed to map objects less on a millimeter across—including stuff that's not visible to ground-based systems. Step 2: Send up sticky space roombas to roam around cleaning up the junk, especially those discarded microsats. ADRAS 1 spacecraft will be covered in adhesive which will grab debris and then pull the stuff that's in low-earth orbit down to be incinerated on re-entry. Junk that's higher up will be nudged away from high traffic areas.  Step 3: Profit.  Last month, Astroscale received a big second infusion of cash, primarily from a Japanese government-based public-private partnership, but also from the private venture firm JAFCO. The first round of funding was $7.7 million in venture money a little over a year ago. The company is aiming to launch the ADRAS in 2018. Astroscale certainly isn't the only player in this area: Last week, NASA announced an investment in a Brane Craft, a 2D membrane designed to drag space junk down to burn up, and some Russkie academics have a few ideas as well.  Looks like the market for space maids is heating up. P.S. Space junk also causes ongoing diplomatic problems, since the U.S. has historically had more and better info about floating debris than other nations and also created more than its share of the man-made portion of that debris. Some fear space junk could even trigger global war if strategic sats are destroyed under suspicous circumstances. So we'd better get to work tidying this place up.[...]

The Martian is Up for Seven Academy Awards Tonight

Sun, 28 Feb 2016 17:00:00 -0500

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Whether or not you consider it a comedy, it's undeniable that the Ridley Scott-helmed, sci-fi rescue story The Martian has been raking in awards.  Tonight the film is up for seven Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Writing, and Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role.

Reason TV's Zach Weissmueller sat down with Andy Weir, author of the best-selling novel that spawned the film, to talk about his amazing journey from computer programming, the challenges of writing a scientifically accurate space novel, and his thoughts on the future of real-life space travel.

President Obama's Moonshot Presidency

Wed, 13 Jan 2016 08:02:00 -0500

In President Obama’s final State of the Union, he promised that Joe Biden would cure cancer.

No really. That was the president’s Big Bold Idea: a new national effort that he framed as a “new moonshot”—with Vice President Biden “in charge of mission control”—the goal of which will be to cure cancer “once and for all.” (Granted, Biden probably wouldn’t be the one in the lab coat testing cures, but he’d be directing the program and its resources.)

It’s a dubious idea—and its indicative of both the problems with Obama’s final State of the Union and the larger failures of his presidency.

Curing cancer would be wonderful indeed, but in few ways is it comparable to America’s first trip to the moon. Getting to the moon was a massive undertaking, but it was a fundamentally understandable engineering problem: how to get out of earth’s gravity well, get into orbit around the moon, put down a lunar lander with a couple of people in it, and then make a return trip with the crew unharmed. It was hard, and required massive human and financial resources, as well as considerable experimentation and innovation, and yet basically straightforward in terms of the challenge it presented.

A similar challenge today would be making a manned trip to Mars. It would be very expensive and time intensive for any government to accomplish, would require a fair amount of engineering experimentation and innovation, and would be somewhat risky for the astronauts making the trip. But we have a pretty good sense of what would be involved, and we can be reasonably certain that we could make it happen given some time and resources.

Curing cancer would be…different. For one thing, cancer isn’t monolithic. There are hundreds of types of cancer, and those different cancers affect each individual in different ways. For another thing, we don’t even know what the end product would look like, what sort of biological process or technology it might involve. It’s as if we’re trying to get to the moon, but there are dozens of moons, and we don’t know where they are, or what a rocket is.

This is the problem with “moonshot” proposals: Very few things are like going to the moon (except perhaps going to other relatively close places within the solar system), and the methods and lessons of the moon program aren’t terribly applicable to other sorts of scientific challenges.

What that means is that means that moonshot proposals almost always turn out to be empty declarations that if we just believe and try and devote ourselves with enough intensity and passion, we can make something happen.

That’s a nice thought, but it’s more of a hope than a plan. In many ways, though, that’s the gist of a lot of what Obama said in his State of the Union address last night—that if only we believe and dedicate ourselves to a cause, we can make it happen.

That sort of determined hopefulness can be comforting, but Obama’s own presidency is a study in its limits. It is telling that Obama’s final State of the Union returned to many of the themes that defined his first presidential run, in particular the polarization of America’s politics, and lamented that the old problems remain—or, in some ways, have grown worse. Fixing America’s politics was a kind of moonshot idea, and after seven years, it’s clear that Obama has failed. The real problem is that there’s no obvious way to fix it, no clear idea of what a fix might look like. But a recognition that some problem is intractable or unsolvable doesn’t make for a very stirring State of the Union speech, and so we get visions of moonshots instead. 

"Welcome Back, Baby!": SpaceX Returns Rocket to Earth

Tue, 22 Dec 2015 11:17:00 -0500

Last night SpaceX launched its Falcon 9 rocket into orbit and landed the first stage vertically on a Cape Canaveral pad. It was kind of a big deal. This was a huge success after two previous failures, and CEO Elon Musk was pumped:


The goal of reusability has been a holy grail for private spaceflight industry, since recovering key components of the spacecraft could dramatically bring down the price of getting stuff and people into space. 

Last month, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos' company Blue Origin managed a landing as well, another milestone for the industry, though it was a less ambitious project all around, with a smaller craft going slower and returning from a lesser height. 

Before this year, rockets boosters were incredibly expensive feats of engineering that became incredibly expensive garbage as soon as they served their function. Musk and Bezos' obsession with reusability is about the bottom line, bringing down the cost of getting stuff off the surface of the earth is a crucial precondition to all kinds of space-based industries and ventures, such as asteroid mining—though the primary commercial application at the moment is satellites.


In case the whole thing wasn't nerdy enough for you, here's one more tweet from Musk, who seems to have gone full Bilbo: 


And for more, check out Reason TV: "When Can I Buy My Ticket to Outer Space?"

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