Tag Archives: space

Congratulations to SpaceX for sticking the landing

As someone who has been listening with some interest to the trials of SpaceX in perfecting its re-usable rocket system, I was very happy to see news that they had successfully stuck their landing on this, their fifth overall attempt.

Easy peasy, right? Try it youself:

I’m not sure it’s even possible in the game. Frankly, I would never have thought that it was possible in real life long enough to even put engineers on the project- even if I was using $100 bills as toilet paper because I just had to get rid of the stuff somehow.

The two-stage Falcon 9 rocket blasted off from Cape Canaveral on April 8 carrying the robotic Dragon cargo spacecraft into orbit for resupplying the International Space Station (ISS). Following the deployment of the cargo craft, the Falcon 9’s stage 1 rocket returned to earth to stick a perfect vertical landing atop on a floating sea platform.

The long-term purpose of this feat is to re-use the first rocket stage in subsequent launches, thereby lowering the cost of these space taxi flights, and increasing the frequency of their missions. Hans Koenigsmann, VP of flight reliability at SpaceX said, “… we hope …  to be able to launch basically every other week by the end of the year.”

The strategy employed in managing these rockets is outlined below, where the first stage executes a flip orienting its exhaust forward to allow for firings to slow the craft down and orient it towards the landing platform:

It is important to keep in mind that the landing is a great challenge, but it is not the only hurdle SpaceX has had to overcome. Delivering something into space may not seem terribly difficult. ‘How high does this need to go?’ is a reasonable first question. The ISS orbits at an altitude of 249 miles. Farther than you would want to commute on a day to day basis, but nothing like the distance to the moon or Mars (230,000 miles and 35.8 million miles away at their closest, respectively).

But another consideration is just how fast the rocket needs to travel in order to put something into orbit. Orbit isn’t just height, but requires a horizontal speed tangent to the planet such that as the craft falls to Earth, it’s horizontal movement has pushed it far enough that the Earth is dropping away below it just as quickly as it falls. The ISS travels at a speed of 4.76 miles / second, which translates to a 17,136 miles per hour. So, if it shot straight up and reached the height of the ISS orbital, there would still be this 17,000 mph speed difference to deal with, a problem that may sound familiar to viewers of the recent films, Gravity and The Martian.

To bring  cargo destined for the ISS into orbit, Falcon needs to list off, gain an altitude of almost 450 miles, and accelerate to a speed that would carry a traveler from Washington D.C. to New York City in 43 seconds.

The first stage, or main rocket engine, is designed with an array of nine ‘Merlin’ engines producing 6,806 kiloNewtons (at sea level) of force for 162 seconds of thrust. The first stage actually only fires for 180 seconds during liftoff, leaving 82 seconds of thrust for three separate return trip burns.

Following separation of the first stage, a second stage is equipped to navigate into one or more orbits for payload delivery with 8 minutes of burn. This is an unusual capability because  reigniting these large engines several times, just isn’t done in most rockets.

Ok, I’m gushing like a fanboy, but with NASA doing less and less in the way of manned spaceflight (believe me, I’m plenty impressed with their unmanned flights), SpaceX gives big kids like me something to watch and dream of a second – wait, third- career as an astronaut.

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Posted by on April 13, 2016 in Uncategorized


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Life on Mars

I’m going to go out on a limb here:

With the recent discovery of (evidence for) liquid water on the surface of Mars, there’s going to be life there.

My own personal hypothesis would be that it’s either going to be terrestrial life that was transported to Mars via rock ejected from Earth by the impact of past meteors or the other way around, an idea known as panspermia. One solid possibility would be Earth –> Mars via ejecta following the Chicxulub asteroid impact in Mexico. It is commonly thought that Mars may have been a much more hospitable place long ago, including large seas suggested by potassium-thorium-iron enriched areas visible by Gamma Ray Spectrometer. This enrichment may be explained as an accumulation deposited by liquid water on the surface of the planet.

A superimposition of gamma-ray data from Mars Odyssey's Gamma-Ray Spectrometer onto topographic data from the laser altimeter onboard the Mars Global Surveyor.

A superimposition of gamma-ray data from Mars Odyssey’s Gamma-Ray Spectrometer onto topographic data from the laser altimeter onboard the Mars Global Surveyor.

If this is correct, some residual bacteria-like organisms remaining from a more biotic history could have seeded Earth in a Chicxulub-like impact of Mars.

“Tetsuya Hara, et al, at Kyoto Sangyo University in Japan have calculated that a large amount of Earth landed on the Moon and Mars, but also on other planets that may be compatible with life—the Jovian moon, Europa, the Saturnian moon, Enceladus, and more surprisingly even planets like Earth orbiting other stars.” (from askwhy)

On porrible map of Chicxulub asteroid ejecta

On possible map of Chicxulub asteroid ejecta

Regardless of any relationship between the life of the two planets, I have to say that I’m firmly on the side of manifest destiny here. I completely understand the arguments against contaminating another planet with life from this one, but I don’t imagine a future without Earthlings spreading to the other planets of this solar system.

Without the need to transport masses of water, NASA (and other Terrestrial space agencies) may suddenly see a manned mission to Mars as imminently do-able. The question changes from could we go to should we go? What are our obligations if our presence there will disturb an extant biosystem?

Carl Sagan said “no.” It was his belief that any planet with indigenous life should be protected from human intrusion. Perhaps an inspiration for Star Trek’s Prime Directive.

On this issue, I would have to part with Sagan’s advice – perhaps on purely selfish grounds. I want humans to explore the heavens and I believe that a strict policy like this Prime Directive would prevent that forever.

If you are reading this, take a moment contribute your two bits.

If possible, should humans go to and possibly remain, on Mars?

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Posted by on September 29, 2015 in Uncategorized


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Note to self: Don’t age whiskey in microgravity

After three years in space – aboard the international space station, to be exact – a vial of whiskey from the Ardbeg Distillery has returned to Earth for a taste test.

Here, I have to quote directly from the taster’s notes, because anything shy of them would entirely miss the point:

Ardbeg tasting notes from experiment:

Earth sample: “The sample had a woody aroma, reminiscent of an aged Ardbeg style, with hints of cedar, sweet smoke and aged balsamic vinegar, as well as raisins, treacle toffee, vanilla and burnt oranges.

“On the palate, its woody, balsamic flavours shone through, along with a distant fruitiness, some charcoal and antiseptic notes, leading to a long, lingering aftertaste, with flavours of gentle smoke, tar and creamy fudge.”

Space sample: “Its intense aroma had hints of antiseptic smoke, rubber and smoked fish, along with a curious, perfumed note, like violet or cassis, and powerful woody tones, leading to a meaty aroma.

“The taste was very focused, with smoked fruits such as prunes, raisins, sugared plums and cherries, earthy peat smoke, peppermint, aniseed, cinnamon and smoked bacon or hickory-smoked ham. The aftertaste is intense and long, with hints of wood, antiseptic lozenges and rubbery smoke.”

Personally, I find taste-testers to be a curious lot with their off the wall flavor and aroma comparisons, “hints of wood [and] antiseptic lozenges” and with an n=1, and the fact that the taste-test was almost certainly not blinded, there seems to be little science actually happening here.

But, who am I to complain. There is at least some data. This is not a good place to age your whiskey:


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Posted by on September 9, 2015 in Uncategorized


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Is the Space Age over for the US?

I grew up in an age when the USA dominated space. The Apollo missions had put the first men on the moon and American kids everywhere were tasting victory with each sip of Tang.


Good Dog. 

Read the story of Laika in the eponymous graphic Novel.

It didn’t matter that the Soviets had launched the first artificial satellite (Sputnik), the first animal to orbit the Earth (Laika), or the first man in space (Yuri Gagarin). I mean, really – out of the gate, the Russians (we never troubled ourselves to distinguish Russia from the Soviet Union in any way) were kicking our butts. Then the US turned the tide, and following a solid series of incremental achievements, sent not one, but six successful missions to the moon.

And, just to make sure the world knew it, we declared that landing on the moon was the endgame and we made it. We win. Game over. No other country has accomplished the same — yet.

For years NASA maintained a presence in space with the shuttle program, although it was less than evident what larger purpose these missions served before the international space station (ISS) came online. It’s easy to have objections to the way the shuttle program was run. The objectives never matched the clear progression that the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo missions illustrated.


  • To successfully orbit a manned spacecraft around Earth.
  • To investigate humankinds’ ability to function in space.
  • To recover both occupant and spacecraft.


  • Subject astronauts to long duration flights.
  • Perfect methods of reentry and landing the spacecraft.
  • Gain information concerning the effects of weightlessness on astronauts during long flights.


  • Demonstrate crew, space vehicle, and the mission support facilities during a manned lunar mission.
  • Evaluation of the LM performance in lunar orbit and the lunar environment.
  • Land a man on the moon and return him safely to the Earth
  • Gather lunar rocks and soil samples

Space Shuttle:

  • A reusable spacecraft
  • ???
  • Establish, man and supply a long-term space station

Then, in 2011, the last shuttle flight landed and The US is reduced to hitching rides to the ISS. As someone whose patriotic spirit is ignited by our collective will and ability to conquer big problems, I feel a real degree of shame that the US has relinquished its ability to make great strides into space. 

“What nationality was Christopher Columbus?”


“Might as well be. They were the one’s who made it happen.”

Like the Italians (or the Portuguese or the English), the US appears to be abdicating it’s power and allowing other nations to go forth as leaders.

ImageFortunately, this isn’t the end. If funding continues, the US is on track to construct its next space deliver vehicle, the Space Launch System, for its first launch in 2017. Perhaps you could call my position one of cautious optimism. 

The stated mission of the SLC with its Orion modules would be to:

  • capture an asteroid and bring it into high lunar orbit
  • Perform a manned flyby of Venus and Mars before returning to Earth in the early 2020s.
  • Establish a permanent or semi-permanent presence  on the moon.

I, for one, am keeping my fingers crossed that once clear, incremental objectives are established, we will re-commit to the exploration of spec in my lifetime.


Posted by on March 10, 2014 in Uncategorized


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History of the Solar System by Minute Physics

I’ve only recently discovered Minute Physics, a production of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. They state, quite correctly in my mind, that if you can’t explain it in a minute, you don’t understand it. This echoes a statement by Bob Doms, of the University of Pennsylvania, who once said to our class, “You need to always be able to explain your work in one sentence so your mother can understand.”

This is close enough, from Minute Physics, ‘Why is the Solar System Flat?”:

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Posted by on January 10, 2014 in Uncategorized


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“Life is nothing but an electron looking for a place to rest”

ImagePhysics -> Chemistry -> Biology

The Smithsonian Magazine has an article this week proposing that we consider Mars as the origin of Terrestrial Life. This notion stems from Steven Benner’s Four Paradoxes: The Tar Paradox, The Water Paradox, The Single Biopolymer Paradox and The Probability Paradox. Each of these is described in the abstract of his work, and do add up to a possible alternative for life’s origin. However, as compelling as his arguments may be, the origin of life will always be a mystery veiled in time. Even if we were to find evidence of life on Mars that is very much like that on Earth, it would be difficult to say whether Terrestrial life was the origin of Martian life, or vice versa.

Another problem I have with tracing the origins of life off-planet is that it does not solve anything, but merely relocates the source. So it’s not that I feel that Benner’s work is uninteresting or unworthy of consideration, but presently, Ockham’s razor precludes Imageseriously considering extra-terrestrial origins without a good deal more hard evidence. Further,  relocating the source or life’s origin does little to change how we think about  origins. Regardless or where life started, it is still highly probably that it began with RNA, a unique molecule in that even today it serves dual roles as an information-carrying molecule and a structural one that often has enzymatic function. And, that the addition of the more stable , DNA molecule as the primary source of information happened later – as adding protein synthesis also did for providing an alternative structural / functional molecule. 

Evolution of the Central Dogma?


                        DNA -> RNA                                                  RNA -> Protein

                                                  DNA -> RNA -> Protein


Posted by on August 31, 2013 in Uncategorized


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ImageLast week’s Science magazine had a pair of articles about Voyager 1’s arrival at the heliopause and the fluctuations of particles it has encountered. For about a year astronomers have been talking about the limits of the solar system.  An idea that I admit I had never entertained in any absolute way. Instead, my image of the extent of the solar system is mostly shaped by the most distant planets’ orbital paths. Sometime in the past decade or two, I became aware of plutoid objects, among which Pluto is one and that there is an Oort Cloud beyond that. I’ve always been a bit hazy about the details of what comprises the Oort cloud and how this differs from the plutoid objects.

Sometime during the conversation ignited by Pluto’s demotion to a dwarf planet, I head a good description of the solar system that described it as: four small, rocky planets close to the sun, then a belt of asteroids, followed by four large, gas planets, then another ring of small objects.


The edge of the solar system

I really am looking for someone to explain this in terms that a reasonably intelligent person without much astronomy background can comprehend. That is, I don’t want too much left out, but I’m not necessarily ready for an overly technical explanation.

With respect to local suns, what is the position of our solar system? What forces interact between the suns? What do we know of the space between solar systems (or between galaxies?)


A simplistic view of nine balls circling a star

That’s a pretty tidy description, but I think it leaves out a lot.

The interest now is in defining the edges, the limitation of the sun’s influence on space in favor of extra-solar forces. From what I gather, this is referring to both ‘solar wind’ and magnetic field.

I can understand this from the inside (although I need correcting here too) ,  but what I don’t fully grasp are what the forces are outside of the solar system. What dominates those forces? One thing I notice in the illustrations I’ve seen is a teardrop shape to the system resulting from a unidirectional current. What is this current? Is it emanating from other solar systems? Some local influence of nearby stars? Or a galactic force?


Heliosphere warping under external pressure

I hope someone out there can help me understand this better.

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Posted by on July 20, 2013 in Uncategorized


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Take a nice close look at the surface of Mars


What is this rock made of?

Jerry Coyne’s Why Evolution is True webiste uncovers a lot of gems on the internet. Recently, he posted a link to Nasa’s billion-pixel panoramic photo (composite) from the Curiosity rover. You can  take a close look at a great deal of Martian landscape using their viewer. Just below the panorama are links that will drag you to come intriguing places in the image (a shiny white object in the sand, what seriously looks like a Martian bird – I can’t stand not knowing what this really is, etc.) I also found a rock that the rover had broken open that exposed a shiny, light-colored interior (above).

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Posted by on June 20, 2013 in Uncategorized


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TED Talks, free speech and scientific integrity

Screen Shot 2013-03-07 at 3.15.39 PMThere’s a fascinating, fast-moving discussion join on right now sparked by a recent TEDx talk. If you aren’t aware of TED talks, take some time and check them out, they’re a fascinating group of short talks that cover a variety of ideas. Under the TED umbrella, there are also TEDx talks (TED-liscenced talks that are like the parent, TED talks, but more widespread and under less scrutiny), there are TEDed videos that provide short, educational videos targeting classroom use, etc. I’ve been a big fan of TED because of the caliber or speakers and the quality of their talks.

However, one talk has stood out and has received a lot of attention from the scientific community. This came to my attention recently because I follow Jerry Coyne’s blog and he posted the talk in one of his entries along with a strong critique of the talk. You can check out his post here.

Fortunately, and to the credit of TED, this critique has been taken very seriously and the TED site now has an open comment section where the value of this post is being discussed. If you are interested in thinking about what science is… what evidence is … you might like reading through the extensive comments that have simply exploded. As of right now, there doesn’t appear to be much flaming going on and there are some very good comments being made about what it means to do science.

I’ve had conflicting thoughts about whether to bring this discussion up here, because I think the talk is simply terrible in its treatment of science and I was worried that readers might be mistakenly wooed down the garden path by his wonderful oratory skills, but I think the comments section adds enough balance to the discussion and  the holes in his logic are laid bare.

Happy reading.

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Posted by on March 7, 2013 in Uncategorized


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Both classes have quizzes tomorrow…

The theme of some of my extra credit questions (the non-science ones) is science fiction films.

These two films, released in 1979 and 1982 both begin with the exploration of supposedly dead worlds. In each film, something old and unexpected is awakened, but the similarities end there. I could easily call either of these films a favorite.

Star_Trek_II_The_Wrath_of_Khan_DVD_coverThe Wrath of Kahn has the benefit of using an incredibly clever recollection of an old storyline from the TV series. The original episode, space seed, introduced us to Kahn, a product of genetic engineering in the late 20th century. Kahn fled Earth after his failed attempt at seizing control of the planet for himself and placed himself, along with many of his men and women into cryogenic sleep. They are awakened after drifting through space for hundred of years and no sooner is Kahn recovered from his long sleep, does he take control of the Enterprise. Inexplicably, once Kirk takes back command, he decides to leave Kahn on a nearby planet.

The Film picks up after the federation rediscovers Kahn during a scientific exploration. I don’t want to spoil it or anything, but things went bad on the planet and Kahn is pissed.

Alien, on the other hand is an entirely different film. We are plunged into a very realistic future where a towing unit returning to Earth with a refinery full of ore respond to a strange transmission coming from an unknown planet. There they find some wreckage of a space ship with a mutilated body and some strange eggs. Head and shoulders above the subsequent installments, Alien was something new and unpredictable. A great, unique story, well acted, beautiful to watch and unrelentingly intense.


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Posted by on February 13, 2013 in Uncategorized


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