How Bad Is 82%?

Did the gringa’s dear readers hear the news? The Earth’s report card has arrived and, well, it doesn’t seem to be all that bad. It’s a “B”, after all, 82%. That’s the grade the University of Washington’s Virtual Planetary Laboratory gave our lovely planet. What, exactly, does that mean?

By using what the laboratory calls the “habitability index”, our planet was graded on the likelihood of supporting life. It rated an 82%. The same guidelines used to determine the habitability of life on other exoplanets throughout the vast cosmos was applied to Earth and she got a “B”. Among these guidelines are factors like: atmospheric pressure, terrain, existence of water, etc.

The funny thing is that if we didn’t live here already, and sent out a probe to conduct an analysis of our planet according to this habitability index, we wouldn’t think the planet was inhabited or capable of sustaining life if we wanted to pay it a visit with boots on the ground. We would think it was too hot to support life. What? Yes. Our scientists would think it too close to our host star, the Sun. The gringa says, “That’s crazy!” I then have to wonder how many other planets out there in space have been deemed “uninhabitable” but, in actuality, could very well support life and possible may be doing just that?!

The researchers at SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) seem to be thinking along the same lines as the gringa. Now, SETI typically keeps a fairly low profile. However, with the discovery of exoplanets, there is renewed vigor in the organization’s work.

When work first began in the 1980s, SETI was not a group of ufologists looking for little green men. These were serious scientists who were actually skeptical that intelligent life existed in the universe other than here on Earth. And then the discovery of exoplanets was made. These cosmic bodies orbit stars just like Earth and our neighbors within our own Solar System.

In addition to the discovery of exoplanets, extremophiles were also discovered. These are living organisms that survive within an extreme ecosystem, such as bacterial ecosystems around a 700 degree Fahrenheit hydrothermal vent, surviving without sunlight and under extreme oceanic pressure.  That means that life in the most basic form that evolved into all that populates our planet today can exist in outer space. In fact, it’s highly likely that it does, somewhere, we just have to find it.

You see, about 2,000 exoplanets have been discovered and that is just scratching the surface of an infinite universe. Mankind’s limited exploration abilities have yet to uncover what is likely to be hundreds of thousands, possibly millions and billions, of exoplanets. That dramatically increases the chances that somewhere out there is an exoplanet supporting life.

Consider that many of these exoplanets are much older than Earth. That means they have had plenty of time for bacteria to evolve into intelligent beings. Now, more than ever, is the gringa excited about the future of space exploration. The nearest exoplanet with a score high enough on the habitability index to consider a likely place to start in such a search is over 1,400 light years away. The gringa would rather go there than Mars.


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Uranus – The Teenager Planet

Why are astronomers fascinated by Uranus? Some have even gone so far as to claim it is the best darn planet in the Solar System. The gringa says, “Hey! What about Earth and Mars? Aren’t they the ones NASA is making such a fuss over? Trying to save one and explore the other?”

Well, astronomical appreciation for Uranus is because it is just so bizarre. Bizarre, huh? Like, odd rainbow colored creatures with spiny noses and squishy springs for appendages and gumballs for tails? Well, no, not quite that bizarre.

Uranus is bizarre because, apparently, it’s a bit lazy. You see, other planets spin around on their axis,  or axi, the gringa’s not quite sure about the plural spelling of axis, but you know what I mean. To get back to the point, yes, Uranus is lazy. It does not spin on its axis like other planets. It lays on its side.

Another oddity is that, even though it is not the farthest planet from the Sun, it is the coldest. Perhaps that’s because it’s so darn lazy. It’s never up, spinning around creating friction and heat and all that good, heat-generating stuff that movement creates.

Also, Uranus is confused and misplaces things, things like its magnetic field. Its magnetic field is NOT where it’s supposed to be. Uranus is kind of like a teenager. It lays about doing a lot of nothing and is messy, laying other things about where they are not supposed to be.

One more thing that makes Uranus like a teenager is its greenish atmosphere. It’s moody. It vacillates between dull boredom and doing absolute nothing to crazy business.

Uranus also has an identity crisis. You know how a parent names a child, like, say, the gringa named her eldest son, Zachary, then he goes off to school and engages in some mild rebellion to assert his independence and comes home with a name like, say, Milkshake? Yes, that’s Uranus, too. While all the other planets were named after Roman gods, Uranus had to go and be different and have a name after a Greek god instead, Ouranos, the sky father, who beget Saturn (aka Cronus) and Jupiter (aka Zeus).

Another aspect of Uranus is, because of its laziness and slow motion movement, for a very long time it was thought to be a star. It wasn’t until 1781 that Sir William Hershel discovered that it was actually a planet. Poor Uranus, so misunderstood and underestimated.

If we chose to colonize Uranus instead of Mars, life would be rather odd living on a sideways planet. Summer would last for twenty years without a single sunset and winter would be just as long, spent entirely in darkness. The gringa would surely go mad.

It takes the planet over eighty years to orbit the sun. Surrounded by its 27 moons (that we know about) and ringed about by 13 circlets of rock and spacedust, Uranus plods along at its own snail’s pace. And those moons and rings are just as odd as the planet they surround.

One ring is made up completely of spacedust astronomers think came from the moon named Mab when it was hit by asteroids. Another ring has simply disappeared since the last image received while another moved about and is now somewhere else. But, perhaps the strangest ring of all is the one that “breathes”. Every few hours it expands and then contracts throughout a five kilometer difference. Now that’s just weird.

The moons don’t just orbit Uranus but seem to engage in a dance. They are not considered stable because they are constantly pushing and pulling one another with their different gravities. Scientists expect a few will eventually crash into one another and then who knows what kind of changes will develop. Maybe the planet will get another ring or two.

And with an atmosphere of hydrogen, helium, methane, ammonia and hydrogen sulfide, the gringa’s pretty sure it would be a very unpleasant place to set up household. Everyone would speak ridiculously, no more opera and musicals to appreciate. The air would also smell like a big fart, everywhere, and your eyes would sting and tear. There are also storms with winds over 100 mph that can last for years.

However, one oddity that the gringa thinks may just make all that nastiness about the stinky, unpleasant air worth the sacrifice is what scientists think about the “oceans” of Uranus. Underneath those thick, smelly gas clouds there could be an “ocean” of liquid diamonds! For heaven’s sake! You don’t say?! The gringa has just GOT to know if this is true! Can you imagine! If it is, every single woman I know who loves sparkly things will be on the first commercial rocket, no matter the cost. Goodbye Earth!

So, what the heck happened to Uranus? What got it knocked off its axis? Some experts theorize a large moon, that is long since extinct, had a powerful gravitational pull that overpowered the planet. Others consider that perhaps it had a cosmic collision with something larger than Earth.

Unfortunately, NASA doesn’t expect to dig in to a deeply involved study of this mysterious planet anytime soon. We just don’t have the technology developed that can effectively get an orbiter that far away (almost 2 billion miles) and successfully cope with the instability of all the oddities of Uranus. But, with NASA, the word is never “impossible”. The word is always, well, the two words are always, “not yet”. So, the gringa hopes somewhere there are some NASA scientists as incredibly curious as herself and are being some Johnnies-on-the-spot getting this technology developed. I just have to know more!

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Chandra & the Jellyfish

IC 443 is more commonly known as the Jellyfish Nebula. What the heck is a nebula? Well, a nebula is a cloud of dust and gas found in outer space. Sometimes, at night, if you find yourself in the perfect spot for stargazing, you may notice a spot in the sky that is brighter or, perhaps, a darker shadow across a brighter patch.

The Jellyfish Nebula is thought to be the gas and dust leftovers of a supernova event that happened in outer space about 5,000 light years from planet Earth. What the heck is a supernova? Sometimes a star suddenly becomes much brighter because of great explosions happening within the gas that it is made up of. When it becomes so explosive and heated that it ejects most of its mass, it has gone supernova. So, in the simplest of terms, a supernova is a star that has exploded BIG TIME.

The gas and dust debris of the Jellyfish Nebula may also be the material that created a strange object found due south of the nebula. This object is officially called CXOU J061705.3+222127. Scientists just call it J0617. These same scientists believe this object to be a pulsar. What the heck is a pulsar? A pulsar is a neutron star that is rapidly spinning around. It also emits pulses of radio waves and electromagnetic radiation.

What the heck is a neutron star? A neutron star usually has a radius less than 18 miles but is densely packed with neutrons. They are most often created when a massive star goes supernova and leaves behind its core. As a massive star runs out of fuel the stage is set for a supernova explosion. When the fuel runs out, the outer layers collapse. When these outer layers come into contact with the core, they then bounce outward creating the supernova explosion. In the end, all that’s left is the core which is now spinning like crazy and emitting pulses of radio waves and radiation.

The post photo of the Jellyfish Nebula has an inset that shows the region surrounding J0617. Scientists are interested in the small ring that appears to surround the pulsar. There is also a feature of something jet-like that passes through the pulsar. The scientists want to determine if this emission is directly related to the pulsar or has a different source. Possibilities are a high speed wind of particles or something like a shock wave.

Nothing definitive has been concluded regarding when the supernova event occurred. Researchers have offered estimates ranging from 3,000 years ago to 30,000 years ago. Needless to say, the scientists have much more to learn about the Jellyfish Nebula and J0617. If the dear reader is interested in more details than what the simple-minded gringa can offer, check out the on-line source “The Astrophysical Journal”.

Research on the Jellyfish Nebula is managed by NASA’s Chandra program. Specifically, Chandra is an X-ray Observatory. It is the most powerful orbiting X-ray telescope in the world. Scientists from all over the world have access to the images generated by this program. The gringa loves how NASA likes to share knowledge and is not stingy with their technology.

Chandra studies cosmic X-rays, or, the effects of matter that has been heated to millions of degrees. High temperatures that create detectable X-rays happen throughout the universe wherever there are strong magnetic fields, powerful forces of gravity, or extreme explosions (like a supernova).

When a supernova happens, charged particles slam into one another. This causes them to produce energy in the form of photons. As photons fly through space, leaving the scene of a supernova event, they actually become light. These are just the sorts of things Chandra has been tracking and recording since 1999 when the Space Shuttle Columbia launched Chandra into outer space.

Chandra has eight mirrors that X-rays slam into, ricochet off, and are focused onto a focal plane that is half as wide as a human hair.  The focal plane captures the image of the X-rays and records the number, position, energy and arrival time. Two spectrometers then analyze the X-ray to determine what form of energy it is and other details of its physical condition.

Chandra is housed in a spacecraft observatory with two sets of thrusters. This observatory was the largest and heaviest payload ever launched by a Space Shuttle, weighing in at liftoff at 50,162 pounds. If you had eyes as powerful as Chandra, you could read a stop sign from twelve miles away. Chandra’s mission duration was originally set for five years. The mission began in August of 1999 and she is still going strong.

If the dear reader would like to delve into more information about Chandra, visit


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“Back Up Life…”

SpaceX is the private company that is contracted with NASA to supply the space agency with the “Dragon”, a crew transport spacecraft designed for large crew capabilities as well as deep space missions. Elon Musk, the creator of SpaceX, recently gave an interview with GQ magazine. In that interview he voiced his concerns regarding accomplishing the Mars mission in light of the fact that this world’s nations just can’t seem to grow up and stop all of this war mess.

Musk’s big dream is to colonize Mars. Considering his accomplishments, the gringa believes he can achieve his dream. I mean, just think about it: he leads a company that has managed to develop technology that can design and build rockets at a fraction of the cost as NASA. SpaceX is also the first private company, ever, in all of the world, to have launched a spacecraft into orbit and have it successfully return to Earth. SpaceX has impressed NASA so much that it is contracted to manage resupply missions to the International Space Station as well as transport the astronauts between the ISS and Earth.

Musk believes colonizing Mars is more than just a glamorous adventure. He believes this mission is critical to the ultimate survival of the human species. Considering how mankind has been consistently annihilating one another since a caveman first created a club to sock it to his romantic rival, the gringa has no trouble at all believing Musk’s worst-case scenario of a natural or man-made disaster destroying life as we know it on Earth and the survivors starting over somewhere else. Why not Mars? Musk’s philosophy can be summed up in this statement, “You back up your hard drive… Maybe we should back up life, too?”

In addition to reusable rocket technology and personnel space ferries, SpaceX is developing “Mars colonial transport architecture” to further advance toward the ultimate goal. The gringa asks, “What the heck is that?”

A critical piece of this architecture is commonly called the BFR rocket (it has a technical name but Musk and the developers refer to it as BFR). Now, the gringa likes to keep things family friendly on these blog posts, but, just so you know, BFR actually stands for Big F*#@ing Rocket. I MEAN IT! No kidding! I love that! Scientists that have a sense of humor are right up the gringa’s alley.

The BFR is a two part rocket, booster rocket + spaceship. The booster is to break through the gravity and atmosphere of Earth. Once free, the spaceship is designed to travel through deep space to Mars. The gravity of Mars is weaker than Earth’s and also has a thinner atmosphere. Because of this the spaceship does not need a rocket booster to blast off from Mars for a return trip home.

In order for Martian colonists to create a self-sustaining environment on the Red Planet, what must be done? The planet has to be terraformed to create a warmer environment that will lead to ice melts so that it becomes a “watery” planet. Then fauna can be introduced that will help to create a breathable atmosphere. Musk considers Mars to be a “fixer-upper”. The gringa likes that term.

Nuclear energy could be used to help warm the planet. By converting technology that has been used to destroy life, the fusion bomb can be repurposed into technology that creates and sustains life (now, the gringa LOVES that!). As tiny pulsing suns at each Martian pole, this technology would create a warming effect without radiation and fallout. Mars would then experience the same benefits Earth has from its proximity to the Sun.

Now, NASA is devoted not only to preserving life on the planet Earth, but any life that may possibly be present throughout the cosmos. It has a Mars directive in place forbidding any mission landing near any area containing the potential for liquid water. That is because of the possibility of the presence of bio-organisms, life, causing cross-contamination, whether those organisms are of Earth and contaminate Mars or vice versa.

The good news, as far as the colonial mission goes, is that NASA’s research has not detected any life present on Mars, even on the microscopic level. So, if it is eventually determined that no life at all exists on Mars, the moral dilemma of invading, contaminating and/or destroying it is resolved and colonization can get the green light. The only life on Mars that might exist that NASA’s current research methods are unable to detect is subterranean microbial life.

So, who would like to give the pioneering life a shot and actually become a MARTIAN?  The gringa says, “Where’s the sign up sheet?”

Now, it’s pretty clear that Musk is the type of personality that is driven. There is very little that seems to get in his way when he has set a goal. His biggest concern regarding achievement of colonizing Mars is the very real reality of war. The Earth has never seen a single day in modern history where there has not been an active war somewhere. War could be the very thing that prevents progress.

War stood in the way of progress in the early 1900’s. It was supposed to be a golden era with no more war. Then, guess what? BAM! World War I started. Then World War II. Then the Cold War. However, the Cold War eventually led to the space race, so progress did come of that mess.

How possible is it, then, for progress toward colonizing Mars be disrupted? Pretty darn possible. So, the gringa says to all the religious zealots and war profiteering warmongers everywhere, “JUST STOP IT! KNOCK IT OFF! WE ARE SICK OF IT!”

Now, I know you must be itching to see just how much more fantastic Musk’s dream can get. Well, just check out his timetable. He is determined for all of this to be accomplished within his lifetime. If Musk gets his way (and he seems very apt at always getting his way) the world could see the first boots on the ground on Mars within the next ten to fifteen years.

In fact, before the end of 2015, or early in 2016, he plans to make a big announcement regarding his Mars-colonization plan. The gringa cannot wait to hear this crazy plan because I’m a crazy gringa who is his biggest fan!



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Kennedy Spaceport, It’s Official

Has the gringa mentioned before that I’m a Trekkie? I’m sure I have. And that includes all the spin-offs, like “Deep Space Nine”. Although the International Space Station is nothing like that orbital station, we Earthlings are one step closer to becoming more “Trek-like”. No longer are the places that rockets launch from simply called “facilities”. Nope, now we can all officially call that “space center” in Florida the “Kennedy Spaceport”.

You see, we are no longer just launching rockets and shuttles. We are entering the phase of space travel being performed in spacecrafts. It’s a different concept altogether, although the spaceships are still flung through Earth’s atmosphere riding piggy-back on a rocket.

The Cygnus spacecraft is delivered into space attached to an Atlas V rocket. This spacecraft is for cargo delivery. The Orion spacecraft hitches a ride on a Delta IV Heavy rocket. It is a spacecraft in which a crew actually travels aboard. The Kennedy Spaceport will also be where the Dragon and Starliner, the large crew capacity spacecrafts, will launch.

NASA’s spacecrafts will no longer need the runway previous shuttles used. The runway is three miles long and 300 feet wide. However, it is not just going to be forgotten now that the shuttle program has entered NASA’s annals of history. Commercial and government partners will be putting it to good use. Even NASA repurposes, the gringa likes this.

The Kennedy Spaceport is leading the way for the space travel and space science industry to prepare for their ultimate challenge, the manned mission to Mars. By having a multi-use spaceport, industry partners and NASA can streamline their efforts which will result in greater efficiency in their collaborations in developing and testing the technologies that are going to safely deliver a crew to the Red Planet.

The spaceport will also be able to process resupply missions quicker and more efficiently. The purpose of the missions on the International Space Station are research, research, research as well as testing new technologies. This is all part of NASA’s goals to improve life on Earth and accomplish gains and progress in space exploration.

A consolidated spaceport is NASA’s new approach to managing the flow of traffic to and from space. Within the coming years, traffic to and from the space station will increase considerably. Such traffic will not just be to swap crews on the ISS or resupply the ISS. The next big project is to lasso an asteroid and tow it into orbit around our moon. This will then usher in a series of missions where crews will travel to this asteroid and begin their Mars mission training.

Kennedy Spaceport is going to be the hub of all of this space travel activity. It will become the home of thousands of engineers, technicians and scientists who support the astronauts while they are off-world.

President Obama challenged NASA to create a spacecraft and support technology that would enable astronauts to perform long-term, deep-space missions with the ultimate goal of landing on Mars. NASA accepted the throw down of the gauntlet and the Kennedy Spaceport is one more step to fulfilling this challenge. Further testing of the Orion spacecraft will eventually result in it being ready to deliver astronauts to deep space and an exploration venture of Mars.

NASA has every confidence that it will fulfill President Obama’s objectives. Why does this space agency have such confidence? Because it believes in the skills of its personnel.

And one more reason to get behind this agency’s efforts is its dedication to respect the source of its funding. Not only is NASA repurposing the shuttle runway but it is also repurposing many buildings and structures throughout the sprawling Kennedy complex. Some buildings that NASA has no use for will be used by industry partners. The unique capabilities of these commercial companies will be right next door to the agency they are developing technology for.  This can only improve research and development and save the taxpayers lots of moolah.

Very soon launches of crews to outer space will be a regular thing. On-worlders will see them as “no big deal”. Eventually it will take something really spectacular and unbelievable to make us go, “WOW”, something like, boots on the ground on Mars!

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Alice & Albert

Could it really be that it’s been one hundred years since Albert Einstein published his theory of general relativity? The science community refers to Albert so often, I often feel as if he graced this earth just yesterday. But, indeed, November is the one hundred year anniversary of his publication of this theory.

Even though the gringa has heard many times someone say “the theory of relativity”, um, what the heck does it really mean? I mean, how the heck can it be used for something useful or even for something interesting or fun?  Well, this is the basis for all the time-warp fodder for great (or even lousy) literary works of science fiction, which the gringa loves, even the “lousy” ones.

The first time Albert’s theory was successfully put to the test in real life was during the observation of a solar eclipse. A prediction was made, based on the theory, of how much “bended” light would be deflected when a particular star passed near the sun. The theory supposed that the sun’s mass would cause the light of the star to bend. And the prediction, based on Albert’s theory, was spot on.

So? Now what? Thus became the  established phenomena that is known as “gravitational lensing”. Astronomers now know that this appearance of bended light is not an optical illusion but something that actually happens. This allows astronomers a method to delve into galaxies that would otherwise be off limits for research even with humanity’s most powerful telescopes.

One such galaxy that fits this description is commonly called the “Cheshire Cat” galaxy because it’s appearance reminds one of that particular elusive character from the “Alice In Wonderland” story.  What exactly causes the smiley face? Well, the theory explains that these are distant galaxies whose light is stretched and then bent by objects of great mass which are most likely made up of dark matter. Why dark matter? Well, since no large mass objects are visible but the evidence of their presence is there in the bent light, the mass must then exist in the form of  invisible dark matter.

Scientists claim that there are six galaxies that make up the outer space smiley face. Each eye and the nose are individual galaxies and there are four other galaxies that create the arcs which are bent light created by gravitational lensing by some mysterious dark matter object with great mass. Scientists view the “Cheshire Cat” through NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope.

The eye galaxies are the brightest and are zipping through space on a collision course with one another at over 300,000 miles per hour. NASA uses the Chandra X-ray Observatory to determine that hot gas, millions of degrees Fahrenheit, is the evidence that these galaxies are indeed colliding. And that’s not all the mayhem that the “Cheshire Cat” is out and about doing. Aside from the bumper car routine,  the cat’s left eye has a very hungry supermassive black hole right at its center which is gobbling up all sorts of things.

Astronomers classify this cluster of galaxies as a fossil group. A fossil group has a dominant elliptical galaxy surrounded by smaller galaxies. Fossil groups are considered to be just one stage that almost all galaxy groups go through as they evolve. Perhaps it’s kind of like the teenage years for galaxies. Horrible driving and collisions and they eat everyone out of house and home.

So, once it grows up a bit, then, what’s the next stage? That would be the Cyclops group, when they merge into one mega-galaxy. Yeah, the gringa thinks that sounds about right. Just like a teenager then develops into  a mature senior who gets a bit fat and needs reading glasses.  But it will probably take a billion years or so. Looks like we will be enjoying the smiley face for a long time to come.

If any of the gringa’s dear readers happen to be passing through Huntsville, Alabama, they can check in at Marshall Space Flight Center. That’s headquarters for the Chandra program that studies the “Cheshire Cat”. Or, even better, if you find yourself in Cambridge, Massachusetts, see if you can take a peek at the cat yourself. That’s where you’ll find The Smithsonian Astrophysics Observatory that controls the Chandra program’s science and flight operations.


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The “Little Green Men” Star

If you happen to be a writer looking for fodder for a great science fiction story, you may want to delve into NASA reports regarding star KIC 8462852. NASA is fascinated by the strange goings on about this star and bears much resemblance to a pulsar named LGM-1 (Little Green Men). This pulsar emitted strange signals that created a stir within NASA and were ultimately determined to be a natural phenomenon. The strange events involving star KIC 8462852 have yet to solved.

Monitoring this star has been the responsibility of the Kepler mission for the past four years. In 2011, and later in 2013, two significant, and as yet unexplained, events took place. What do scientists really know? They know that the star dimmed because “something” passed in front of it large enough to block its light. The gringa says, “What the heck?”

In September scientists finally reported their theory and findings on what could possibly explain these strange events. They are blaming a “swarm” or “family” of comets. The gringa’s imagination begins whirling and thinks, “Or perhaps a fleet of starships.” Another theory suggests a cluster of planetary fragments and asteroids.

Scientists are using NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope to probe deeper into this mystery. To learn more, scientists, who first studied the star using observations conducted in visible light, then tried using infrared light. This is because if asteroids were involved and actually impacted the star there will be a whole bunch of infrared light surrounding the star and the dusty old bits of gravel from a pulverized asteroid should be at the perfect temperature to glow like a firefly under infrared wavelengths.  And detecting infrared light is one of things the Spitzer Space Telescope is designed to do.

This year the Spitzer took a gander at star KIC 8462852 while looking at hundreds of thousands of stars in its search for planets. One thing in particular that Spitzer was looking for was infrared emission of space dust that encircled stars. Spitzer didn’t find any of this type of dust around star KIC 8462852 so scientists think the asteroid collision theory can probably be scratched.

So, the gringa wants to know just what their thinking is now. What the scientists seem to be leaning toward is the possibility of a “swarm” of cold comets. For such a theory to work, this cluster of comets would need to have an unusually long orbit around the star. They also call this theoretical comet cluster a “family” because it would require a “pack leader” to explain some of the phenomena. The larger “big daddy” that would be in the lead would have been the one to block the star’s light in 2011. In 2013 the rest of the family would have been passing through in front of the star and blocked the light again in the strange pattern that was recorded.  This would explain why in 2015, when Spitzer observed the star again, there were no infrared signatures. The comet “swarm” was long gone and probably around on the other side of the star in its orbit progression.

The gringa must confess to thinking, “Mm hmm. Scout ship shouts, ‘The coast is clear!’ and the support ships soon set a course for the coordinates.” Oh yes, what an imagination! But please don’t judge the gringa! I just couldn’t help myself when NASA itself goes and names a pulsar something like “Little Green Men-1”.

NASA admits that what is going on with this star is strange and not understood. Their interest is extremely piqued so study and research will continue until the curiosity of these scientists are satisfied. And I ask you, is that not the greatest job ever? For every little kid that has lain on their back in the grass in the dark of the night staring up at the stars and wondering if there really are “little green men” out there, is that not just the coolest job ever to grow up and get to do!

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The Girl Who Loved To Count

And who says girls are bad at math? Most definitely Katherine Johnson is not!

Born in West Virgina in 1918, she was a girl who grew up in a time when not only were women not expected to grow up and do great things, but a woman of color had the additional obstacle of racism. But that didn’t stop Katherine from counting and that is the fascination that led to her greatness that culminated in her service at NASA.

When describing her youthful obsession, she said, “I counted everything. I counted the steps to the road, the steps up to the church, the number of dishes and silverware I washed… anything that could be counted, I did.” And what did all that counting lead to? The 2015 National Medal of Freedom.

She was an amazing achiever. At the tender age of ten she was a freshman in high school. Imagine that in the time period and circumstances she was in! The gringa is in awe! And, apparently, her father was as well. He did what was necessary to see that his daughter fulfilled her potential.

Eventually he relocated the entire family to Institute, West Virginia so Katherine could complete her education and she graduated college at the age of eighteen.  Katherine then went on to teach, raise a family and eventually work for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics in 1953 which would later be replaced by NASA. In the time before there were computers to do the tedious job of counting and recording, people like Katherine did the job.

As a “human computer”, Katherine completed mission assignments like calculating the trajectory for the first American in space, Alan Shepard. Once computers did exist, Katherine was the back up that double checked the computer’s accuracy on calculations. Her work was so respected that before John Glenn made his spaceflight aboard Friendship 7, he specifically asked for Katherine to do the recheck on his mission calculations.

Katherine worked on the Apollo Moon landing mission as well as the early beginnings of the shuttle program. She continued to serve the people of the United States of America, as well as the entire world, through her extraordinary work at NASA until 1986.

The Presidential Medal of Freedom medal that she was awarded on Tuesday, November 24, 2015, was not the only merit to her name. In addition to honorary doctorates, in 1967 she received the NASA Lunar Orbiter Spacecraft and Operations team award for her work in navigation.

What does NASA have to say about Katherine? The following are quoted from NASA Administrator Charles Bolden’s public statement:

“She’s one of the greatest minds ever to grace our agency or our country…”

“Katherine’s legacy is a big part of the reason that my fellow astronauts and I were able to get to space…”

NASA Deputy Administrator Dava Newman said:  “We are fortunate that when faced with the adversity of racial and gender barriers, she found the courage to say ‘tell them I’m coming’.

And the gringa will close with those simple yet bold words from a great woman.



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And, Moving Right Along…

Usually, when one thinks about government sponsored programs one thinks of bureaucratic red tape that defies common sense and ridiculous delays and grossly inflated expenses. NASA is changing all of those misconceptions.  This past Friday it announced that things are moving right along at the space agency.  It has declared mission orders for SpaceX, a private company in California, to launch astronauts to the International Space Station. Back in May, The Boeing Company got the same orders.

These are “first time ever” missions. One aspect of “first time ever” is that a commercial agency, rather than NASA, will provide the space vehicle and rocket. Although NASA will supply the astronauts, private companies are furnishing the hardware to get them to the ISS. Although exact dates haven’t been nailed down and we don’t yet know who gets to be the first company to make space history, we do know that this historical event will take place in 2017. You see, once a mission has been contracted, it takes about two or three years to complete the construction and certification process of these spaceships.

Boeing’s spaceship is the CST-100 Starliner. The SpaceX spacecraft is the Crew Dragon. Their capabilities will make a big difference in research capabilities aboard the ISS, which is actually an orbiting laboratory even though it is commonly called a “station”, like it was something akin to a train depot. The gringa thinks, “As if!”

How else does NASA and the nation and the world benefit from this collaboration with commercial industry getting involved in missions typically considered to be a “government only” controlled program? Well, for one thing, much like commercial airline competition helps keep prices lower for the traveler, the cost per seat for each astronaut is lower. I mean, we all know that private companies are interested in profit whereas a government agency, um, not so much. This means that in the production of the spacecraft and its operational expenses, the company attempts to keep operating costs down in order to maximize profit. They are incentivized to operate like that whereas a government agency, um, not so much. So, in other words, by contracting with SpaceX and Boeing to use their spaceships, NASA is saving the taxpayers some money. The gringa says, “YAY!”

You see, since the scuttle of the shuttle NASA has been having to pay fees to Rocosmos to tote our astronauts to the ISS. So, we’ll also be saving cab fare. And one other important thing to consider. NASA always depends on funding from the U.S. government which in turn determines their budget. If we stop and think that this agency has had its funding on the chopping block during hard economic times, it is only natural for NASA to think outside the box (which is what they do best) and come up with solutions for shortfalls.

Each contract between NASA and these two commercial companies allows for at least two and up to six missions. A mission will involve transporting up to four NASA or NASA-sponsored crew members along with cargo, about 220 pounds of it. While the crew serves its 210 day mission, the spaceship remains at the station as an “emergency lifeboat” should there be an ISS disaster. By using the Boeing and SpaceX spacecrafts, NASA is able to send more personnel which translates to more manpower for research and scientific work. That means the world will benefit from their results sooner as well as the input of more creative minds that opens up the possibility of more innovative ideas.

This change of increasing personnel and speeding up the timeline of research and development on board the ISS creates another great possibility. The possibility of constructing other orbiting platforms that will support research and develop in the private sector. Commercial capabilities, the space economy, is exactly where NASA is leading the world. And, the gringa is on board!


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“Spacespresso” Please

The gringa is most definitely a “Trekkie”. No big surprise there, eh? I just love all the gadgets they have on those shows. One of my favorites is the “tri-corder” (which, forever and a day I thought was actually “tri-quarter”). This little doo-dad scanned, analyzed and recorded data. It could detect life forms through a rock wall or diagnose a disease or injury. Well, guess what? NASA may very well be getting some! They’re not called “tri-corder” but, the concept is the same.

This fascinating invention is the brain child of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory that’s located in Pasadena, California. It’s small, portable and called a “chemical laptop”. Personally, I think that name has absolutely no imagination and wish they could have come up with something more akin to “tri-corder”, but no one asked me.  If they had I would have called it something like “hand lab” or “Doal” (Detector of alien life) or maybe “Cie” (Coolest invention ever) or, as you will read later and understand, “Spacespresso” (my personal favorite). But, like I said, no one asked me.

This chemical “laptop” is actually not a laptop at all. It’s really a miniature laboratory, about the size of a regular laptop and thicker. The above picture shows the chemical laptop sitting beside a regular laptop, both on top of a rover. The chemical laptop analyzes material samples for signs of life. If it ever makes the grade for an off-world mission it will be an historic moment as being the most sensitive technological device to ever leave planet Earth.

NASA has big dreams of sending it to Mars or Europa. If they get their big chance, instead of using the “laptop” to scan a bit of this or that, it will, gulp, swallow the sample. (The gringa envisions memories of the “Hungry, Hungry, Hippo” game I played as a child.) Once consumed, the laptop can be programmed through various “apps” (we all know what those are!) to test for all sorts of things like amino acids or fatty acids, which are the basic building blocks of life as we know it.

Now, at this turn in the story the gringa gets totally sidetracked with the amino acid thing. As I peruse my research material I scratch my little head and think, “Really? I had no idea!” Taking the risk that my dear reader may already know interesting tidbits about amino acids, I will share what fascinated me so.

Apparently, amino acids are either right-handed or left-handed. In other words, there are two types that are mirror images of each other. The left-handed booger is the standard for life as we know it on Earth. As NASA studies samples, they are looking for samples that are predominantly one or the other. A 50/50 mix is not considered to be a biological form.

The challenge for NASA has been developing a way to look for both types in a single sample. And, VOILA!  The chemical laptop! Now, this little lab needs liquid samples which are not easily found on other planets that are usually colossal frozen rocks in orbit. Now, for you folks that love your espresso machines, you will totally get the technology involved to mix a sample with a bit of water then heat the mix until some of the sample’s organic molecules mix with the water.

When “Spacespresso” then receives the liquid sample it injects a fluorescent dye into it. The sample flows over a microchip that detects which is a leftie or which is a rightie. These pass by a laser and are separated according to leftie or rightie status. Once separated, the lefties and righties are mixed with a chemical that interacts specifically with one or the other. Finally, they emerge into a channel and the scientists can then determine how many lefties and how many righties there are.

Field tests began in 2014, which is the first step to reaching the ultimate goal of getting “Spacespresso” to Mars. The next field test is going to be in the Atacama Desert in Chile. NASA, true to its mission of helping all mankind with its work, is considering how this technology can also be of benefit in the world of medicine and not just their own Mars mission dreams. The gringa waits with bated breath.

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