NASA Invites Public Collaboration


In last Monday’s blog article “Asteroid Ahead! Redirect! Redirect!” I mentioned the “Asteroid Grand Challenge”, NASA’s initiative to think outside the box and cast a wide citizen-focused net to capture concepts that will help NASA achieve its Mars objectives quicker. NASA recognizes that innovative ideas and cutting edge technologies can be found all over the world, not just among their own staff. Through NASA’s “Expert and Citizen Assessment of Science and Technology Network” (ECAST), participants can provide assessments and ideas that not only help NASA move forward in their Mars projects, but also helps develop programs that facilitate public understanding that is engaging, interactive, and widely available to all who are interested.

By inviting the public to engage in space exploration in whatever level they are capable, every individual can be vested, to a degree, in the course that NASA plots. Open dialogue that allows all Americans to share their ideas has been a source of great benefit for NASA. Jason Kessler, of the Office of the Chief Technologist at NASA’s D.C. headquarters, doesn’t just get information requests from citizens. There are forums for all related industries where entrepreneurs of small business as well as large corporations have an opportunity to engage in dialogue with NASA and explore different models, plans and technologies for missions that are in preparation.  ECAST makes it possible for people of the general population who are not represented by related industry to have a voice in NASA’s technology policies.

Civilian participation with ECAST research focuses on planetary defense, designs for habitations of Mars, and the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM). NASA wants to know what the public thinks about these ideas. NASA is open to consider your own ideas. NASA wants citizens to share their values in regard to these topics. Two public forum meetings held in 2014 in Phoenix and Boston resulted in NASA listening to the majority of civilians present expressing their interest and support in asteroid research, planetary defense and further space exploration. NASA valued the diversity of ideas, insight and information provided by citizens. Without this program, NASA would not have access to the opinions of Americans, realize their intense curiosity and support of their work, and enjoy the prospect of third party innovative ideas to consider.

NASA openly seeks ideas from American companies for spacecraft designs that can be used in the upcoming ARM mission.  Companies can also offer design ideas for the robotic satellite and a refueling system within the satellite that will assist in mission services within low-Earth orbit. NASA’s goal is to have a robotic spacecraft ready for launch in the early 2020s that can capture a large boulder from a near-Earth asteroid and set it up in a stable orbit around the Earth’s moon to be used in research and training for the upcoming Mars exploration missions.

In an era where there is so much cynicism and criticism of big government, the gringa finds this refreshing because, after all, I am an astronaut hopeful. My family thinks I am crazy, but, if ever a regular Joe could have an opportunity to go to Mars, you can count me in. What a great opportunity for brilliant business owners and courageous citizens to have a chance to partner with an organization such as NASA on the most ambitious and incredible project of my generation.

For more information about NASA’s Asteroid Initiative, visit:

http://www.nasa.gov/asteroidinitiative

For more information about NASA’s robotic satellite servicing capabilities office, visit:

http://go.usa.gov/3kpV5

 

Sources: www.nasa.gov

Photo credit::  www.researchandinnovation.ie

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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

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.

Source:  http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/station/research/experiments_category.html

Photo credit: www.nasa.gov

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?”