Monthly Archives: September 2011

Mars atmosphere has more water vapor than predicted

Data from Mars Express has found that the Martian upper atmosphere has far more water vapor than predicted.

“The vertical distribution of water vapour is a key factor in the study of Mars’ hydrological cycle, and the old paradigm that it is mainly controlled by saturation physics now needs to be revised,” said Luca Maltagliati [of the Laboratoire Atmosphères, Milieux, Observations Spatiales (LATMOS) in Guyancourt, France]. “Our finding has major implications for understanding the planet’s global climate and the transport of water from one hemisphere to the other.”

“The data suggest that much more water vapour is being carried high enough in the atmosphere to be affected by photodissociation,” added Franck Montmessin, also from LATMOS, who is the Principal Investigator for SPICAM and a co-author of the paper. “Solar radiation can split the water molecules into oxygen and hydrogen atoms, which can then escape into space. This has implications for the rate at which water has been lost from the planet and for the long-term evolution of the Martian surface and atmosphere.”

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Scientists push for monitoring network to collect environmental and socioeconomic data from around the world

What could go wrong? Scientists push for a monitoring network to collect environmental and socioeconomic data from around the world.

Sandy Andelman, an ecologist with Conservation International in Arlington, Virginia, discussed her work setting up a pilot project that began two years ago in southern Tanzania. In addition to basic environmental data about soils, nutrients and land cover, the project tracks agricultural practices. It also incorporates data about income, health and education that is maintained by the government. Andelman says that all the data she collects can be broken down to the level of individual households, and that initial results from the project have already prompted the Tanzanian government to adjust the way it zones agricultural land in the area. [emphasis mine]

Lord help the farmers whose lives will be tracked by this network.

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Orbital Sciences restarts engine testing for its Taurus 2 rocket

Orbital Sciences has resumed engine testing for its Taurus 2 rocket.

While many have doubts about SpaceX, SpaceX has at least flown two successful flights of its Falcon 9 rocket. Orbital needs the Taurus 2 to supply ISS, and this rocket remains untested and as yet incomplete, with the schedule bearing down on them.

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Reality always wins

Elon Musk’s talk yesterday at the National Press Club revealed several interesting things, about SpaceX’s rocket effort, about the state of the American commercial space industry, and about Elon Musk himself.

First, the company’s rocket design effort. Musk centered his talk on SpaceX’s new effort to make its Falcon 9 rocket completely reusable. Though he produced little specific details, and the moderator at the event asked no questions about it, it seems the engineering centers around these three concepts:
» Read more

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House proposes a budget increase for NIH

The Republican-controlled House has proposed a budget for National Institutes of Health (NIH) that is one billion more than last year’s budget, an increase from $30.7 to $31.7 billion.

What evil budget-cutters these Republicans are! Their mean-spirited budget increase has the nerve to reduce Obama’s budget request by about $120 million, equivalent to a whopping one third of one percent!

This is all shameful. For context, in 2008 NIH’s budget was $29.2 billion. Considering the state of the budget it seems unconscionable for the House to agree to any increase over $30.7 billion. In truth, it is perfectly reasonable to reduce NIH’S budget back to its 2008 number.

Too bad our present Congress, both Democratic and Republican, isn’t reasonable.

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NASA has identified ninety percent of the largest near-Earth asteroids

Data from the infrared telescope WISE has now identified ninety percent of the largest near-Earth asteroids.

NASA researchers also downgraded their estimate of the number of medium-sized asteroids, saying there are 44 percent fewer than previously believed. The downside is that scientists have yet to find many of these mid-sized asteroids, which could destroy a metropolitan city.

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SpaceX suspends production of its Falcon 1 rocket

SpaceX suspends production of its Falcon 1 rocket.

As much as I am a fan of Elon Musk and SpaceX, and though I realize that they have been focusing on getting Falcon 9 and Dragon off the ground — the payoff there is greater and a failure of Falcon 1 during this time could be very politically painful — this action contradicts SpaceX’s years of claims that they had a slew of signed contracts to launch Falcon 1.

I will be attending Elon Musk’s luncheon speech today at the National Press Club, and hope to ask him about this and other things.

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Exploring an abandoned mine in Nevada

An evening pause: From the youtube webpage:

This inclined shaft is located outside of Searchlight, NV. The shaft itself is about 350 feet deep with two extensive drift levels along its length. We found a winze [a vertical shaft] in the lowest drift level that went down to what appeared to be an additional level.

I must emphasize that mines are very dangerous, and should be approached with great care and caution. Unlike a cave, which has had eons to slowly establish its stable structure, a mine is cut into the rock instantly (compared to geological time), and is thus very unstable and prone to collapse.

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Energy Department approves $737 million solar loan guarantee

More money wasted? The Energy Department has approved another solar power company loan guarantee, this for $737 million.

I’m not sure this project will go belly-up, as Solyndra did. I just find it questionable for this to be approved at this moment.

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A new report from the EPA Office of the Inspector General has said that EPA violated its own peer review process in determining that greenhouse gases endanger “the public health and welfare.”

A new report from the EPA Office of the Inspector General has said that EPA violated its own peer review process in determining that greenhouse gases endanger “the public health and welfare.”

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The coming blindness of astronomy

Fried Egg Nebula

The European Southern Observatory today released this infrared image today of what astronomers have named the Fried Egg Nebula. Taken by the Very Large Telescope in Chile, the picture shows the concentric dust shells surrounding a post-red supergiant star, thought to be transitioning to the next stage of stellar evolution called a yellow hypergiant. As the press release explains,

The monster star, known to astronomers as IRAS 17163-3907, has a diameter about a thousand times bigger than our Sun. At a distance of about 13 000 light-years from Earth, it is the closest yellow hypergiant found to date and new observations show it shines some 500 000 times more brightly than the Sun. . . . If the Fried Egg Nebula were placed in the centre of the Solar System the Earth would lie deep within the star itself and the planet Jupiter would be orbiting just above its surface. The much larger surrounding nebula would engulf all the planets and dwarf planets and even some of the comets that orbit far beyond the orbit of Neptune. The outer shell has a radius of 10 000 times the distance from the Earth to the Sun.

Yellow hypergiants are in an extremely active phase of their evolution, undergoing a series of explosive events — this star has ejected four times the mass of the Sun in just a few hundred years. The material flung out during these bursts has formed the extensive double shell of the nebula, which is made of dust rich in silicates and mixed with gas.

According to the science paper [pdf] describing this research, the stage of yellow hypergiants is a preliminary to the star evolving into a luminous blue variable, of which Eta Carinae is the most famous. In this next stage a star is thought to have a good chance of going supernova.

Though this image is truely spectacular, taken by a ground-based telescope of a star 13,000 light years away, what I find most significant about this image is its fuzziness. It reminds me of the kind of images astronomers and the public routinely accepted as the best possible, before the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope.
» Read more

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NASA proposes major reconstruction of its launch facility at the Kennedy Space Center

NASA proposes major reconstruction of its launch facility at the Kennedy Space Center.

They say this modernization is intended to make Kennedy more competitive in the modern commercial space market, which I am sure is true. Another way to look at it, however, is that Kennedy is getting favored treatment by the government, receiving a huge subsidy from NASA that the other private spaceports in New Mexico and elsewhere were not even allowed to compete for.

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Orbital Sciences has launch success

Orbital Sciences has a launch success, putting an Air Force reconnaissance satellite into orbit from the Kodiak Launch Complex in Alaska.

For Orbital, this success cleans off some of the stain left on the company from the recent launch failures of its Taurus 1 rocket. What would leave the company stainless, however, will be a successful first launch of its new Taurus 2 rocket, needed to carry its Cygnus capsule to ISS and scheduled for late this year.

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NASA science administrator Ed Weiler is retiring after 33 years

Science administrator Ed Weiler is retiring after almost 33 years at NASA.

Among Weiler’s many achievements, he was crucial to getting the Hubble Space Telescope launched. Even more important, though others had conceived the idea of using the shuttle to maintain Hubble, he designed the maintenance schedule for the telescope. Seven years before it was launched, he insisted that a regular schedule of repair missions be placed on the shuttle manifest. He also insisted that a duplicate of the telescope’s main camera be built, so that if anything went wrong with the first a repaired unit could be launched quickly. It was his foresight here that made the first repair of Hubble in December 1993 go so smoothly. For this, astronomers will always be grateful.

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