Houston Space Center Fun


Space Center Houston is only about an hour south of the gringa’s little barrio apartment. With the caveman and myself being empty-nesters, it has actually been awhile since we’ve visited. In the past, the ninos always had a wonderful and awe-inspiring experience (mamasita, too) whenever we would visit.

Today’s activities and programs offered that are designed to appeal to kids has some massive appeal to a grown-up gringa as well. I may have to take the time to make a visit.

This month Independence Plaza has its grand opening.  Visitors enter a replica of shuttle Independence that is mounted atop the original NASA 905 shuttle launch aircraft. It is the only shuttle in the world the public is allowed to enter and explore.

When I make my plans for a return visit, the gringa wants to make certain it’s on a Friday. Every Friday at 11am  and 1pm it is “Meet an Astronaut Friday”. Astronauts make a presentation and are then available for a question and answer session with the public. And, if you are so inclined (the gringa is), “Lunch With an Astronaut” offers an interesting cosmic dining experience. It’s casual, no spacesuit required. Fare is catered by NASA (wondering if freeze-dried ice cream is for dessert?).  Astronauts featured for February:

  • Tom Jones, February 5
  • Mike Foreman, February 12
  • Brian Duffy, February 19
  • David Hilmers, February 26

If you want to dine with some stars from the stars, NASA advises that you order tickets early because it is first come, first served. If you arrive early, or stay a bit longer, after lunch, you can enjoy the “Meet an Astronaut Friday” presentation.  Don’t forget your camera and let NASA know in your reservation if you have any special dietary requirements.

And, if that doesn’t sound fascinating enough, the center opens a new exhibit February 13 that was designed by Scitech of Australia fame. This is the public’s big chance to pilot an airplane or drive a hovercraft. There are other interactive things to do in this exhibit but the gringa mentions her two favorites. Visitors are invited to explore travel and transportation technologies that have been around for years as well as new, emerging technologies.

And, if that’s not good enough for you, you can go on the Level 9 Tour as a VIP. The gringa believes she definitely ranks VIP status. VIPs get behind-the-scenes access on this five-hour tour which takes visitors through the astronaut training center and mission control for the ISS. Tickets for this tour need to be made in advance because only twelve people daily are allowed.

The gringa’s birthday is coming up and I’m pretty sure tickets for lunch with an astronaut and a Level 9 Tour are at the top of my birthday to-do list. The caveman may have quite a pout if he has to compete for my attention over lunch, but, my outer space madness is just all part of my charm.

Source: spacecenter.org

Photo credit: www.collectspace.com

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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!

 

Source: www.gq.com

Photo Credit: www.joserojas.org

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!

Source & Photo Credit: http://www.nasa.gov

 

 

 

The “REAL” Martian Story


The recent film, “The Martian”, was a big hit at theatres. One reason it turned out to be one fabulous work of cinematic science fiction was because NASA actually collaborated with the filmmakers. With such expert technical advisement, how could it fail to succeed? The gringa would like to know just how similar the technologies featured in the film parallel actual technologies NASA is developing for the future Mars mission.

One of the technologies in development is a habitation module so astronauts can slip out of their dusty spacesuits and put their feet up for a well deserved break at the end of a long day exploring the Red Planet. The Human Exploration Research Analog (HERA) is just the place where this happens. This artificial living habitat is a self-contained environment used for training at the Johnson Space Center in Texas. It simulates what will be the primary living quarters in deep space. Included in the two-story floor plan are workspaces, a bathroom, technically called a “hygiene module”, and an airlock.

Unlike the astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS), Mars mission astronauts will not enjoy food delivery from Earth on a regular basis. Even a hotshot rocket pilot would need at least nine months for an express delivery service. So, if astronauts want to bite into a delicious red apple or sip a glass of fresh orange juice or munch on a salad of crispy fresh leafy greens, they are going to have to grow their own.

So far, astronauts have proven successful farmers where lettuce is concerned but it’s going to take more than arugula to keep them from getting a case of scurvy.  What is being experimented with on the ISS is a vegetable growing system called “Veggie”. This system grows plants in pillow like structure and small bags that use a wicking material that contains the growing media and fertilizer. After the success of growing “Outredgeous” red romaine lettuce, the farming operation has been expanded to include other crops that are important nutrition resources for future astronauts.

Not only will the astronauts need water to drink and use for personal hygiene, but the plants will also need fresh, clean water in order to grow. Although water has been discovered on Mars, there is still as yet no way to access this precious resource. When astronauts arrive, they will need to be supplied with their own water recovery system. Such a system is used on ISS. For years, this system has been tweaked and perfected to the point that not even a teardrop is wasted on ISS. Every drop of water produced in any way is recovered by the Environmental Control and Life Support system and recycled.

Reclaiming and purifying water for re-use sounds pretty simple. I mean, after all, we do it all the time all over the place on Earth. The major difference is gravity. Gases and liquids don’t separate the same way in micro-gravity so rather than use something like a steam distillation purification system or a process that requires gravity to pull unclean water through a filter, a centrifuge is required in space.

Since free-flowing saltwater exists seasonally on Mars, one thought is to construct new technologies for brine water recovery and purification. Water recovery from urine is already successful at separating salts and minerals from pure water on ISS. This technology simply has to be experimented and perfected for use on Mars.

And NASA is not stingy with their technology. Their work extends to vulnerable people all over the world in order to help provide them with clean drinking water. The gringa is proud that NASA considers humanitarian efforts as part of their mission.

Now, in the Mars movie the astronauts carried their oxygen supplies around wherever they went on Mars. Their oxygen supply was created by using carbon dioxide from the fuel generator in the ascent vehicle. In real life, how will astronauts have a regenerative supply of oxygen? We can again look to the ISS to see this technology already successfully in use. Breathable air is continuously made by splitting water molecules. After all H2O is a blend of hydrogen and oxygen. Work is underway to advance the existing technology to recover oxygen from any byproduct that may exist in the atmosphere and collected not only on Mars but also along the journey to Mars.

Now what about Matt Damon’s fashionable spacesuit in sporty orange? How real is that? Well, any astronaut is going to have to wear a protective suit to explore Mars. There is not enough breathable air for them to survive in and the cold would definitely wipe them out pretty quickly. After looking at photos of the Z-2 prototype spacesuit NASA is developing, the gringa is a bit disappointed after the high bar that Hollywood set with the sexy, Matt Damon spacesuit. NASA’s focus is not on a brilliant fashion statement. They are more concerned with creating a functional survival outfit that will remain comfortable to wear even after six or eight hours trekking about the remote wasteland of Mars. The trick is to design a spacesuit from a flexible material that is highly durable. Oh, well, if NASA decides to let the gringa tag along, I will just have to smuggle in my BeDazzler.

And just like the spacesuit let down, the gringa is a bit miffed that the real Mars rover design is not as sporty as depicted by Hollywood. Of course, I shouldn’t be surprised. Noone in Hollywood has any grip on reality, after all. It’s like living on another planet in that city! Maybe astronauts could spend some time there to practice what first contact will be like when they encounter their first alien species in outer space.

To go where their feet can’t take them, astronauts are going to have to have a vehicle that is sturdy and filled with all sorts of gadgets. The name of such a craft is the Multi-Mission Space Exploration Vehicle (MMSEV). The first real space mission this vehicle will be used on will be the upcoming asteroid mission that will precede the actual Mars mission. This little baby is still under development so the gringa doesn’t really have any specifics other than the design has to be extremely versatile in order to be prepared for just about anything that could happen on the Martian landscape.

The Mars journey will be one of the most dangerous undertakings NASA has tackled yet. Because safety is the primary concern, there is no big rush to get there. Zero margin of error is the mission standard. We have accomplished much on ISS that has helped get closer to accomplishing the ultimate goal of landing a crew on the surface of the Red Planet. The next stage of the game is to lasso that damn asteroid and start staging Mars rehearsals. The gringa just can’t believe that this may all happen within her lifetime!

Source & Photo Credit:  www.nasa.gov

Asteroid Ahead! Redirect! Redirect!


I am a sci-fi fan. I love to read science fiction books, watch science fiction movies and even indulge in trolling some of the latest conspiracy theory sites on the future Armageddon triggered by an apocalyptical asteroid-Earth collision event. One thing I have learned throughout my many years of science fiction madness is that there is usually an itsy-bitsy kernel of truth within the fantastical story. The gringa has found such a tidbit of truth within the asteroid-Earth collision story and it comes straight from NASA.

A one of a kind robot mission is being planned at NASA regarding an asteroid near Earth. The robot’s job within the next decade is to gather a mega-ton boulder from an asteroid and redirect it into an orbit around the Moon. This asteroid sample would be explored about five years later and samples returned to Earth from its surface.  This mission, begun in 2013, is called “Asteroid Redirect Mission” (ARM) and is all part of the plan for getting humans to Mars in the 2030’s. This little information nugget is what is fueling the preppers and conspiracists who think all of mankind is doomed sometime this September by an asteroid-Earth catastrophe. As these folks hunker down in their bunkers, the gringa asks the dear reader to simply read on and amuse yourself.

Out of the thousand-plus asteroids astronauts have to select from, they have four that are favorites. A bit more research on their orbit, velocity, spin and size will be conducted for a few more years before a final decision is made. To speed things along, NASA also has created an initiative called the “Asteroid Grand Challenge”. Its purpose is to identify asteroids that pose a potential hazard not just through NASA’s efforts but through collaboration with other cosmic partners. For the astronaut hopeful, physicist, hobbyist astronomer and such in my reading audience, who knows, perhaps you could lend a hand and be a part of something fantastic. Since the plan to launch ARM is scheduled for some time in the 2020 decade, you’ve got plenty of time to get to work.

Now, considering my insatiable curiosity, the gringa has to ask, “Why should we spend so much taxpayer money and risk the lives of astronauts to collect some kazillion years old space rocks?” The answer? Asteroids are considered to be the remnants of the Big Bang. They are the left overs. By having access to an asteroid as near as our Moon, scientists can study more samples than ever before. This helps to satisfy their insatiable curiosity as to how our solar system was formed and life on Earth began. In other words, the discoveries could lead to mankind saving the planet and figuring out how to colonize another planet. There are also possibilities of finding frozen water sources which could hold all sorts of interesting things within to study under a microscope, maybe even a frozen bubble of breathable air. That would indicate the possibility of a sister planet that a human could survive on without a protective suit or artificial environment. And, of course, there are always “those” people who hope to find another energy and fuel source. You know, the ones who don’t look at outer space with curiosity and wonder but with dollar signs in their eyes.

The mission will develop a planetary defense technique that could be used to deflect an asteroid that posed a dangerous threat to Earth. Now, if you’re already questioning whether it’s even a good idea to nudge an asteroid over to the Moon and ask the sort of questions the gringa asks, like, “Um, guys, could it just be THAT could become the asteroid that ends up threatening all civilization?” Rest assured, NASA has thought of that as well. That is the reason for the studies on size, mass, velocity and speed. They want to capture an asteroid large enough to provide great research opportunity but small enough to burn up in the atmosphere if it did go rogue and plummet towards Earth.

The gringa also considers, “This all sounds fascinating but, exactly how does this get us closer to Mars?” Well, ever since mankind has begun to climb into rockets and physically explore the cosmos, astronauts have been dependent upon supplies and support from Earth. This has limited the amount of time astronauts can remain in space and how far they can travel. Such missions are labeled “Earth Reliant”. The “Proving Ground” of the deep space environment surrounding the moon is closer to what space travelers will experience on a trip to Mars. For example, solar and cosmic radiation is stronger outside low-Earth orbit and closer to the Moon.

Presently, a typical astronaut mission on the International Space Station (ISS) can last up to six months (about 180 days).  A manned mission to Mars could take 500 days or more. Most of that time is simply in transit back and forth (about six months each way). To become completely Earth independent journeys,  new technologies and methods will be tested on the asteroid.

One such technology to test is Solar Electric Propulsion (SEP). This would do away with chemical dependent propulsion allowing larger on-board payloads in place of the weight that would have otherwise been dedicated to fuel. A larger payload means more on board supplies. More on board supplies means a longer mission capability. Solar propulsion also means energy independence. Energy independence means limitless distance capability of travel within our solar system. By having the asteroid, NASA can test the SEP system as a robotic system that can simulate sending cargo to Mars well before habitants arrive.

Once a robotic spacecraft has successfully landed on Mars, the next phase would then be to launch a crew to Mars. This crew will need to have the skills and technology to maneuver and dock with the Martian robotic spacecraft. This can be practiced on the asteroid delivered to Moon orbit.

Now, a trip to Mars is not a hot-shot, non-stop flight. The plan is actually to have a staged journey. Between Earth and Mars would be multiple ports of call similar in nature to the current ISS. The Orion is NASA’s current exploration craft that will be used in future solar system exploration.  All astronauts slated for Martian missions would then need to know how to dock the Orion with these stations.

What about the protective suits astronauts wore on the Moon landing and currently wear when conducting maintenance and repairs in space at  the ISS? Are these suits sufficient for a Mars mission or do astronauts require new technology there as well? Spacesuits, also known as Extravehicular Mobility Units (EMUs), will need upgrades to the primary life support system (PLSS) due to the carbon dioxide atmosphere of Mars. Engineers are also working on upgrades that will provide better oxygen regulation and humidity control. The gringa thinks, “Dear God, please have decent humidity control. We don’t want to see leather skinned astronaut faces with crazy, frizzy hair.” The EMUs also have cooling systems and atmospheric pressure regulators that will be upgraded to accommodate holding more fluids for longer periods of time. Durability will also be a factor. Astronauts traveling to Mars will need these babies to last a long time and be easy to maintain and repair. The new designs will be tested on the asteroid missions before actually going to Mars. It would really suck to be 10 days out on a 500 day mission only to find out your spacesuit was not going to be able to hold 17 months worth of pee. At least on the asteroid you can turn around and go home and change your pants.

Within the next five years, the world can expect to see a new object floating around the moon and regular travel back and forth to study, research and rehearse for even greater events in the future. Within the gringa’s lifetime, I may just witness humans arriving on Mars. Who knows, by the time I’m old and ornery enough that my kids and grandkids have stolen my driver’s license, hidden my car keys and put my car up on blocks, I may just buy a damn ticket.

Sources:

http://www.nasa.gov/content/what-is-nasa-s-asteroid-redirect-mission

http://www.nasa.gov/content/how-will-nasas-asteroid-redirect-mission-help-humans-reach-mars

Photo credit: spectrum.mit.edu