Maaahhhvelous MAVEN!

Yesterday was an important anniversary at NASA. Celebrations were in order to mark a successful year of the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) spacecraft orbiting the Red Planet fulfilling its mission of understanding the upper and lower atmospheres of Mars. Scientists want to know how Martian atmospheric gases that escape into space change the climate of the planet. The ultimate question is whether or not the pattern of atmospheric evolution can trace back to an ancient history where life could once have been supported there.

MAVEN inserted itself into a Mars orbit in September, 2014 and had a dangerous encounter with Comet Siding Spring within its first month in action. Over the past twelve months, MAVEN has carried out and recorded atmospheric observations for ten of those months.

It has detected a pattern of particles at both poles that create a “Mohawk” effect as they escape the atmosphere in plumes. Mars also has a metallic particle layer high in the atmosphere which lights up when affected by solar storms. These particles are leftovers from space rubbish left behind by comets and meteorites. The gringa thinks Mars would be the perfect place for some rock-n-roll concerts.

The violent atmosphere of Mars is punctuated by solar and space radiation, magnetically and electrically charged solar flares and Coronal Mass Ejections that strip the upper atmosphere of Mars of electrically and magnetically charged ions. The data collected on MAVEN can be analyzed to hopefully answer the question if this is the reason for atmospheric loss on the Red Planet and if so, scientists will then attempt to establish a time frame for the continued erosion of the Martian atmosphere.

NASA is very proud of the teamwork that has produced such a successful Martian mission as the MAVEN project. Engineers designed and built a sturdy spaceship that remains in excellent working order despite the extreme conditions it functions within. Although mission completion date is only months away, it is expected that the mission will be extended. The rich amount of data for a hungry science community is too valuable to give up as long as MAVEN is still operational. NASA will be giving the green light for this little workhorse to stay on the job at least one more year.

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A Bit Of Sun & Hope For Humanity

Coming up in December is the one year anniversary of the test flight of the Orion spacecraft that launched from Kennedy Space Center December 5, 2014. The test flight was unmanned. Because of its success, the next time Orion punches through the Earth’s atmosphere, it will deliver astronauts to an asteroid in our Moon’s orbit to rehearse their Red Planet mission. That is the ultimate goal, after all, to have a full astronaut crew heading out to deep space with a final destination of Mars.

The amazing new technologies that will send astronauts farther than they have ever gone before is thanks, in part, to the students of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). NASA and Lockheed Martin offered students the opportunity to collaborate in this daring mission with a program called “Exploration Design Challenge”. What problem were these students asked to solve? The students were challenged to solve the most dangerous issue that faces humans in space – exposure to radiation. The gringa is very proud to say that these students rose to the challenge and their very own radiation experiment was on board for Orion’s test flight. If there was ever a reason for parents to encourage their children in STEM curriculum, parents, the time is NOW!

The emerging generation of scientists will inherit a planet that is rapidly changing. NASA needs this young talent more than ever. Researchers will manage the data collected from satellites and airborne missions. Engineers will keep these missions alive with their technological expertise. These are the critical thinkers the world needs to face the future challenges of rising sea levels and extreme weather events due to climate change. The next generation of astronaut explorers will be the ones to aid our planet in finding freshwater resources out in the cosmos to help replenish are own that are rapidly becoming depleted.

In 2014 NASA studies were published and revealed a rapidly melting western sheet of ice in Antarctica. This appears to be irreversible. Later in the same year, NASA, along with researchers at the University of California, Irvine, concluded that the potential threat of groundwater loss to America’s stable water supply may have previously been underestimated and things were worse than scientists thought. In August of 2014, NASA published research based on the discovery of a large amount of a compound creating ozone depletion. This was an unexpected surprise considering that for decades such a compound has been banned worldwide. Our world is in trouble and our best resource to solve these problems is in the minds of our youth.

The gringa is getting depressed with all this bad news so, let’s get back to the good news! The Orion! I simply must know all I can about this spaceship because the gringa is putting in that ship all her hopes that it is going to be the mother ship of a future fleet of ships that’s going to save humanity’s bacon.

The purpose of the test flight was to see if Orion was up to the task of the most dangerous parts of the mission. Those would be lift-off, entry, separations, the jettison of the Launch Abort System, descent and splashdown. However, most important of all was to test the heat shield that needed to be strong enough to protect astronauts, as well as all the technology on board, from 4,000 degree Fahrenheit temperatures and the related radiation. Is the dear reader dying to know Orion’s report card? The gringa is!

At 7:05am at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, Orion was prepped to lift off with the help of a United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket. Three RS-68 engines created almost two million pounds of thrust which then pushed a 1.63 million pound spacecraft into orbit. After about four minutes the side boosters disengaged and fell away to Earth. The center booster remained with Orion for another ninety seconds. When its fuel was spent, it disengaged and also fell back to Earth. The next thing to release its hold on Orion was the structural supports and the Launch Abort System. Orion was headed out of Earth’s atmosphere.

Seventeen minutes and thirty-nine seconds after lift-off, Orion began its orbit. Two hours into its flight, Orion traveled through the Van Allen radiation belts which are 3,609 miles away. Data recorders provided critical calculations on the doses of radiation within the cabin. This determined if the craft was of sound design and safe to man with a human crew. Three hours and twenty-three minutes into its flight, Orion headed for Earth’s atmosphere where the heat shield withstood the brutal re-entry friction.

What is re-entry like? Orion hit Earth’s atmosphere at a speed of 20,000 mph. The gringa can only say, “Incredible!” The spacecraft gets so amazingly hot at that speed, it is eventually enveloped in plasma. Plasma is considered the fourth state of matter after solids, liquids and gases. When plasma is created on Orion upon re-entry, what happens is that the heat and friction become so energized that electrons break free from their nucleus and travel along with them. That’s what the Sun does all the time. It’s just a big, ol’ ball of plasma. Orion creates a little bit of Sun on re-entry. The gringa’s mind is filled with the Beatles refrain, “Here comes the sun, little darlin’. Here comes the sun. And I say it’s alright.” After all, ultimately that IS the plan, RIGHT? Orion is going to help launch the scientific efforts that hopefully will make everything wrong with the environment alright? Or, at least give humanity some viable options and hope?

After picking up Orion as it bobbed amongst the waves of the Pacific of the coast of Baja, California, NASA used the data to make improvements for the upcoming manned mission. Astronauts will continue their own preparations for a mission that is sure to make history in so many ways. If everyone at NASA is excited about the future, then they truly believe in the mission. The gringa will take her cue from them and toss out the doom and gloom and grab hold of hope and positivity. I will hold fast to an exciting future that most certainly is full of change, but change is not necessarily always a bad thing.

All Aboard The “Moon Express”

A couple of years ago “Moon Express” completed a round of flight tests at Kennedy Space Center. Evidently, this didn’t seem like big news because the popular media sources were rather silent on the matter. Is the “Moon Express” newsworthy or not? The gringa just had to find out. I mean, with the name “Moon Express” conjuring up images in my mind’s eye of a space alien whodunit novel, surely there’s a story in there somewhere.

The “Moon Express” is a private company partnering with NASA’s Lunar CATALYST mission to provide a chunk of technology referred to as “MX-1”. The primary role of Moon Express is in the field of transporting commercial cargo from the Earth to the Moon. The MX-1 is an innovative lunar landing vehicle to help Moon Express fulfill its self-proclaimed mission of “blazing a trail to the Moon to unlock its mysteries and resources for the benefit of life on Earth and our future in space.” Considered by Moon Express to be the eighth continent, the company, with NASA’s support, looks to the Moon as an economic opportunity in order to exploit its natural resources that are rare here on Earth. What are these natural resources and their potential to help mankind?

Take, for instance, the platinum group metals classified as PT-78. Platinum is so scarce on Earth, that humans are only capable of producing a few hundred tons every year. This metal is the least reactive and most resistant to corrosion and can withstand extremely high temperatures. Platinum is most commonly used as a catalyst to produce chemical reactions such as igniting hydrogen and is used in the catalytic converters of automobiles. Estimates of manufacturing experts claim that almost one fifth of industrial applications require platinum. The plan is to mine this valuable commodity found on the Moon, return and sell it back on Earth, and the fellas at Moon Express can make the bank and fund their goals of further space exploration. Is that not the wildest “American Dream” story ever? The gringa is fascinated. I’m thinking of going out and buying a pick-axe and shovel and wheelbarrow and coveralls and…

And, the first stage in achieving these goals is the MX-1commercial lunar lander. This robotic spacecraft will deliver scientific and commercial cargo much cheaper than NASA. How can they do this? Moon Express has developed a “green” space vehicle that is powered by sunlight and, for fuel, uses hydrogen peroxide! Next time the gringa cuts herself, when cleaning the wound and the hydrogen peroxide gets all fizzy, I will imagine myself blasting into space like a shooting star!

Moon Express is just one of a small handful of private companies that have contracted with NASA. These contracts do not allow any funds to be exchanged. They are, rather, an agreement about support services and technologies that will be shared. Moon Express in particular will play a key role in assisting space exploration objectives such as returning geologic samples from the moon, providing the first platform of deployment for further space exploration, and prospecting resources on the Moon such as metals, water and oxygen that can be used to advance space exploration programs.

For more information about Lunar CATALYST, visit

For more information about Moon Express, visit


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Astronauts In The Pool

Astronauts and swimming. The two don’t seem to go together, huh? Big surprise, they do! Just about any day of the week astronauts enter NASA’s Johnson Space Center, don a spacesuit and go for a swim in the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory (NBL). The “laboratory” is actually a six million gallon swimming pool warmed to a constant 86 degrees Fahrenheit. If you are susceptible to vertigo, then for heaven’s sake, if you take a tour, don’t climb up on one of the cranes and look down into what is the largest indoor pool in the world.

Astronauts train for space walks in this 200 feet x 100 feet wide x 40 feet deep state of the art aquatics facility. However, they are not diving in to get their swim on. They first descend to an elevated deck that sits at a depth of twenty feet. Stage two is another twenty foot descent to the floor of the pool. This submerged laboratory contains life-size models of some of the most important components of the International Space Station (ISS). In an underwater environment that simulates microgravity, astronauts do some very serious training.

If you have ever watched NASA videos of tethered astronauts floating around in space repairing one of the eleven trusses that support the ISS’s radiator or solar arrays, this pool is where they did the training for such work. By rehearsing spacewalks in this way, astronauts become familiar with the effects microgravity will have not only upon the movements of their bodies, but also how it will affect the objects and tools they may use.

After a crew is briefed on their mission, they enter the pool and do not return until the mission is complete. This could mean remaining submerged for up to six hours. When they have received the order, and the team is assembled on deck, they are lowered into the pool by cranes. They quickly get to work practicing such routine maintenance tasks as re-routing the cables that connect the modules of the space station or repairing the solar arrays.

Now this all sounds very impressive, but, the gringa has to ask, “Is this super expensive aquatic laboratory and space station worth all of those taxpayer’s dimes? I mean, what’s the point of it all?” The gringa has an insatiable curiosity. I just have to know. Fortunately, because NASA is funded by taxpayers, their work is an open book.

Many of the ongoing biological experiments at ISS study the long term effects being in space has upon human and animal physiology. This helps prepare astronauts for their trips as well as anticipate and manage any health complications when they return home. Such research also will help to determine if it is ever possible for humans to colonize space and live out a normal life span there.

Such things as the human reproductive system are studied. I mean, what’s the point of colonizing outer space if the colonists can’t reproduce? The seed of civilization in some far off galaxy would just die out within one generation. Effects of long term exposure to microgravity upon the human immune system must also be understood. Eventually a colonist is bound to get sick or break a bone or receive a nasty cut. Which, then, leads to cosmic scientists exploring the possibilities of developing the basic building blocks that would allow self-sufficient medicine development in outer space.

Pharmaceuticals often have their origins in organic material, such as plants. ISS experiments also study the development of enclosed ecosystems. If humans are to ever live in space, they will need to find a way to successfully farm in artificial environments. These studies are not just about the future space farming of tomato crops. Astronaut scientists also explore the possibility of raising protein livestock such as fish and quail.

So, astronauts are not just up there having the most expensive camp out of their lives. They are developing the science and methods that will be needed if mankind is ever to inhabit another place as “home” other than Earth.

Does the gringa think it’s all worth it? I suppose so. I suppose I have to consider the possibility that some knucklehead leader of a country may go totally off the rails one day and trigger a catastrophe that may have a widespread impact on our world. That may be the time to just pack up and leave this world behind and head for the stars. I just hope that if that day does ever come, I’m able to bring my little dog along.


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What’s The Matter With Dark Matter?

The first thing that is the matter with dark matter is that it is not “dark” at all. It’s invisible. It neither emits nor absorbs light.

The second thing that is the matter with dark matter is that the fate of mankind depends on something that science only “infers” to exist. This invisible, theoretical, dark matter holds the existence of the universe in its unseen “hands”.  Scientific principles regarding gravity conclude that without this elusive dark matter every star, planet, and all humans as well, would go flying willy-nilly into outer space.

The third thing that is the matter with dark matter is that if it exists, it is then possible that dark matter creates a parallel, invisible world. All the happenings of another civilization could very well be happening right under our very noses and humankind is completely left out of the loop. How utterly curious. Could this parallel world have a cure for cancer? Does cancer even exist there? Are there political factions squabbling for power? Would such a world even need governance? What a fascinating idea.

These matters are why such a hubbub is made within the scientific community about dark matter. The simplest definition of dark matter is that it is nonluminous (dark, invisible) material that is hypothesized (scientifically assumed) to exist in space. It is thought that it can have different forms such as:

  • Cold Dark Matter: particles that are slow moving when compared to the speed of light and interact weakly with ordinary matter and electromagnetic radiation
  • Warm Dark Matter: particles with properties that could possibly be sterile neutrinos and/or gravitinos, and travel faster than cold dark matter but slower than hot dark matter
  • Hot Dark Matter: (no, not an erotic vampire novel) high-energy particles, moving randomly, and do not interact with electromagnetic radiation

Dark matter is theorized to have been created soon after the Big Bang. Therefore understanding dark matter is critical to understanding and supporting the Big Bang theory. Scientists tend to gravitate toward the theory of the creation of the Universe through the building blocks of cold dark matter after the Big Bang. Structures would grow from the bottom up by smaller objects collapsing because of their own gravity. These collapsed structures would then merge and form larger objects with greater mass. Theorizing that the Universe evolved from cold dark matter collapsing and structural fragments merging resolves the questions of how individual galaxies formed.

Warm dark matter and hot dark matter alone could not hold up under scientific scrutiny as to being the original building blocks of the Universe. Although, it may very well have been a mixed bag of all three forms of dark matter creating structures that ultimately resulted in the Universe as we know it today, such a theory, the Mixed Dark Matter theory, is generally rejected.

The universe that is currently known to man consists of about five percent of matter that is classified as “ordinary”. That means that about five percent of the universe consists of matter with mass that is comprised of atoms, or ions, with a nucleus and protons and neutrons. Cosmologists call these “baryons”. This is the matter humans can see.

If ordinary matter only makes up about five percent of the universe, what is the remaining ninety-five percent made up of? About seventy percent is “dark energy”, or, a theoretical energy in the form of a repulsive force counteracting gravity which results in an accelerated expansion of the universe. Dark matter is thought to make up the balance. It sounds like a recipe straight out of Frankenstein’s laboratory: seven cups of dark energy, three cups of dark matter, and a splash of ordinary matter. Voila, Universe!

Detecting dark matter requires a whole new level of thinking. It does not absorb light. It does not emit light. It produces no detectable levels of electromagnetic radiation. If it’s invisible, and cannot be seen with a telescope, how do cosmologists and astronomers know it exists? Scientists infer the existence of dark matter. When astrophysicists measure the mass of large objects in space, such as stars, they discover discrepancies with regard to gravitational effects. When things just don’t add up, the scientists scratch their heads and ask, “Why do these heavenly bodies generate a gravitational effect that should actually be created by an object with greater mass?”

Questions such as these were being asked as early as 1932 when scientist Jan Oort, a Dutch astronomer, suggested dark matter was to blame for the orbital speed of the stars within the Milky Way galaxy. The following year Swiss astronomer, Fritz Zwicky, also believed dark matter was the culprit for the “missing mass” issue. However, it would take another thirty years before compelling evidence could assist the theory of dark matter in gaining ground in the scientific community.

In the 1960’s and 1970’s, American astronomer, Vera Rubin, was deeply entrenched in her controversial work on galaxy clusters. Working alongside Kent Ford, an astronomer and instrument maker, the pair used his spectrometer design to view the light spectrums of spiral galaxies. Their discovery is called the Rubin-Ford effect.

This phenomenon describes the movement of the Milky Way galaxy relative to sample galaxies. Rubin and Ford theorized that the difference in motion of these galaxies, compared to the Milky Way’s motion, was relative to cosmic microwave background radiation. Rubin then focused on studying the rotation curves of galaxies. This led to the discovery of discrepancies between predicted angular motion of galaxies and the actual observed motion of the galaxies.

The gravity of stars within rotating galaxies is what prevents these galaxies from flying apart. Such strong gravitational forces require immense mass. Rubin’s calculations revealed that such galaxies contained much more mass than could be accounted for by the stars they contained. Attempting to explain this discrepancy became known as the “galaxy rotation problem” and led to the conclusion that dark matter must then exist.

One of Rubin’s observations showed that as much as six times more “dark” mass existed in galaxies than ordinary matter. Her work was highly controversial at the time and continued to be studied, tested, debated and discussed. As more astronomers did their own studies with conclusions that supported Rubin’s assertions, it became well established within the scientific community that most galaxies are predominately “dark matter”.

The result of Rubin and Ford’s work has led to innovative methods of observing galaxies. One such method, gravitational lensing, was used to examine background objects within the Bullet Cluster in attempts to identify the presence of dark matter. Light bends as it travels away from the source to the observer. It is the mass of the observed object which causes the light to bend. The greater the mass, the stronger the gravitational field it creates, thus a greater degree of bending of the rays of light. When light is then bent to a degree greater than would be indicated by the known mass of the astronomical object, dark matter is then assumed to be at play to account for this mathematical anomaly.

Scientists have used gravitational microlensing to conduct large searches throughout the Milky Way galaxy. Astronomical evidence indicates that the universe contains much more matter than what is visible to mankind. Some scientists have even speculated that a parallel world is possible that consists of dark matter and can only interact with the universe as we know it through gravity.

When measuring the velocity of rotation as compared to the distance from the center of a spiral galaxy, such as the Milky Way galaxy, the mathematical discrepancy reveals that the cluster’s mass consists of very little of the ordinary matter objects that are visible. Scientists then suggest that dark matter is concentrated in a halo formation surrounding the visible matter. A dark matter parallel world could perhaps be found in the “halos” around astronomical objects. Since dark matter contains no atoms, like ordinary matter, it cannot interact with ordinary matter through electromagnetics. Dark matter contains no electrical charge. Hence, gravity is the only interactive relationship between dark matter and ordinary matter as the theory is understood at this time.

Spiral galaxies are not alone in containing dark matter. Studies conducted with gravitational lensing reveal that dark matter may very well be present in elliptical galaxies. Within dark halos that surround such galaxies, X-ray emissions indicate atmospheric extensions of hot gas which could support the existence of dark matter. Using X-ray emissions to estimate dark matter existence is achieved by measuring the energy and fluctuation of the X-rays. These measurements can be used to estimate the temperature and density of the gas producing the X-rays as well as the pressure of the gas. A profile of mass can be created by assuming that the gas pressure balances with the present gravity. Discrepancies would then be attributed to dark matter.

As with anything, there are, of course, exceptions to the rule. Globular clusters are thought to perhaps contain no dark matter. Cardiff University astronomers discovered galaxy VIRGOHI21 in 2005 and believe it to be made up entirely of dark matter and absent of any visible stars. So, there is diversity and oddities even amongst the stars.

Dark matter within our very own Milky Way galaxy is, apparently, “wimpy”. Every second of every day millions, perhaps even billions, of weakly interacting massive particles, also known as WIMPs, pass through this globe humans call home. Experiments of detection are vigorously underway searching for these invisible invaders. Because WIMPs do not interact with matter, it is thought that they can be detected by measuring energy and momentum discrepancies as they zip about, collide and annihilate each other. This is one of the studies conducted in supercolliders.

What does the discovery of dark matter mean for mankind? For the scientific community, it is simply another wonderful puzzle to be solved. For the regular person moving through life every day, it might mean a new awareness of the possibility of an invisible world right next to you. Average people who simply want to rise from a chair and cross the room may find themselves compelled to politely mutter the words, “Please excuse me.” These words may appear to be uttered to an empty room containing no one who needs their pardon begged. No, these people are not crazy and talking to themselves, they are simply considering that the room could contain invisible, dark matter co-habitants that find it very disturbing when a human walks right through them without even a, “How do you do?”