Tag Archive: NASA


Mercury is the closest planet to the sun and it is also the smallest planet in the solar system, now that Pluto has been demoted. Until now, Mercury has been the only major body in the inner solar system that has not been orbited by human spacecraft. As of Thursday, NASA’s MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry, and Ranging probe, aka MESSENGER, (what an acronym!) successfully entered orbit around the planet, after two flybys of Venus, 3 of Mercury and one of Earth itself. There, it will map the surface and study the environment around Mercury. There are a number of mysteries surrounding the planet, including why it has such a large iron core. There are also a number of questions about strange and bizarre terrain found opposite the planet from a huge 1,550 km-wide impact basin.

Mercury’s next visitors will arrive as part of a joint European Space Agency and Japanese Space Agency project, BepiColombo, that is expected to reach the planet in 2019.

Wikipedia: Mercury

Electron microscope image of a part of a meteorite from Mars: ALH 84001 (Wikipedia

Two NASA astronomers shocked the world with an announcement in 1996: Alien life discovered in a meteorite from Mars. Though NASA eventually retracted the paper on the face of new evidence that suggested some of the carbonate globules were formed at rather high temperatures that would likely preclude life, the announcement still served to tantalize the public about the prospects of life traveling about in space. We see that even today with major news about a controversy over another potential discovery of life from a meteorite. Unfortunately, the life that was discovered may be due to contamination from the Earth.

Wikipedia: ALH 84001

A Taurus XL Rocket on its last successful launch in 2004 (Wikipedia)

Failures on Climate Change

NASA lost another payload that was to be launched to orbit on an Orbital Sciences Taurus XL rocket on Friday because the nose cone failed to separate en route to orbit. The rocket was carrying the Glory satellite, a member of a cluster of satellites to study climate change, in this case by observing aerosol abundances in the atmosphere. Aerosols reflect light from the Sun before the light can be absorbed by the ground. Three out of the last four launches on the Taurus XL have failed for the same reason, and two of them were carrying a satellite that was intended to study Climate Change and the third was to study ozone in the atmosphere. This has led to some people to discuss conspiracy theories. Regardless, there is now a good deal of concern that important measurements needed to better forecast climate change will not occur in a timely fashion due to these launch failures and due to the $600 million cuts to NASA climate observational programs by Congressional Republicans (who do not believe in Climate Change, but do believe in Biblical Unicorns). NASA is trying to defend itself from claims of incompetence, which frankly happens a lot when budget cuts lead to cutting corners. Says Rick Obenschain, Deputy Director of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center:

“To make any connection between our investigation of the 2009 … mishap and Friday’s failure of the Glory launch at this time would be purely speculative and wholly inappropriate.”

Of course. It would be wholly inappropriate to consider that a mishap due to one failure of a nose cone separation with another on the same launch system carrying the same type of satellite. That is the statement of a bureaucrat trying to defend his bureau.

During the presentation of the results of the inquiry, physicist and Nobel Laureate Richard Feynman embarrassed the NASA community with a simple and elegant description of the problem that destroyed the Space Shuttle Challenger – stiffness in seals on the rocket boosters at low temperatures. Watch here:

His work on the committee led to another perspective, encapsulated in bullet points from the Challenger Disaster investigation

Shrinking and unpredictable budgets became problematic. NASA was consistently asked to do more with less (the eternal hope of budget administrators everywhere).

The Reagan administration put more and more pressure on NASA to keep a regular schedule of launches. President Reagan’s dream of space weapons was dependent on keeping to the schedule. Launch delays became more problematic for NASA administrators.

The “can-do attitude” of the 1960s became a “make-do attitude.” Cost-saving mechanisms became the norm. Engineer salaries did not keep pace with inflation, and out-sourcing became commonplace.

Budget cuts made redundant safety systems less desirable. If the engineers found a mechanical problem, the classification of the problem became not just an issue of safety, but also of budget. So if a mechanical problem occurred, but didn’t immediately endanger life, it could be classified as a “concern” rather than a “problem.” In other words, if it didn’t work like we expected, but nothing bad happened, then we’ll just ignore it.

The o-rings had been a concern before. Cracks had been found in the o-rings after previous flights. However, since no disasters had happened, the cracks were seen as “normal,” rather than a “problem.”

–Courtesy of problems.olhoff.com

In essence (and I’m paraphrasing Feynman here): Continued budget cuts eliminate redundant checks and balances in systems that were there to ensure safety. Cutting back too much on the budget for an exploratory program like NASA guarantees there will be problems.

We should understand that the Challenger Disaster occurred during the lifetimes of all of the Members of Congress. It is known that scaling back programs leads to technical trouble. Therefore, scaling back Climate funding is a useful fait accompli for a Climate Change denying Congressman who calls for deep cuts to science budgets. The subsequent claim that either the net result was unexpected or that they have confidence that an organization can do more with less only serves to led plausible deniability to the Congressman. Yet most Climate Change denying Congressmen receive a good deal of campaign funding from oil companies that would be adversely impacted should there be a viable renewable alternative to oil – and these same companies lobby Congress intensely on the issue of Climate Change.

In short – whether by direct or indirect interference is no matter but the oil companies who hold the GOP purse strings are setting back Climate Change research upon which rely in order to better understand human impact on its own surroundings.

Space Shuttle Discovery lifts off for the last time (Michael Berigan/Reuters)


The Space Shuttle Discovery launched into orbit for the last time Thursday, carrying a new crew to the International Space Station. There will be two more flights before the end of the Space Shuttle program. The shuttle Endeavour is scheduled to make one more trip to space in April, followed by the last shuttle flight by Atlantis in June. The shuttle program was to be superseded by the Constellation program, a series of manned and unmanned missions that were aimed toward bringing the United States back to low earth orbit, then the Moon and ultimately Mars. Citing current private companies such as SpaceX that are developing manned orbital systems, president Obama cancelled the Constellation program. At the moment, it appears United States will not be the first country to Mars.

Developments in Libya

Mu’ammar Gadhafi blamed al Qaeda today for the uprising spreading through his country, saying that Osama bin Laden had brainwashed young Libyans who had been given hypnotic drugs in their milk. Opposition groups now control most of Libya, but Gadhafi’s stronghold is in the capital, Tripoli, where his forces are exacting a heavy toll, though some troops and pilots are refusing to fire on protesters. The death toll due to the government attacks on civilians is likely higher than 1,000. Opposition groups continue to make gains despite the government’s counterattack and they are massing in the opposition-controlled eastern portion of the country. The United States, after a generation of enmity and containment, has found that it has few options regarding the situation in Libya. It has few contacts with the leadership, no aircraft carriers in the Mediterranean, and is forced to rely on nations such as France and Italy that have had friendlier relations with Libya. Even worse, once the opposition forces take over there may not be such a warm and rosy relationship with the new government because President Bush sold Gadhafi weapons. Yes, once again weapons emblazoned with “Made in U.S.A.” are firing at civilians who are trying to form a new democracy. So much for shoot first and ask questions later.


Julian Assange has lost his trial for extradition to Sweden. This was expected as most extraditions within the EU are granted. Assange has promised to appeal the ruling and has seven days to do so or else he will be extradited within 10 days.

Comet 9P/Tempel I (Deep Impact, NASA, JPL, University of Maryland)

Welcome to the nucleus of Comet 9P/Tempel I, the first object that was visited (and struck by) NASA’s Deep Impact space probe. The 7.6×4.9km hunk of rock, dust and ice revolves around the Sun roughly between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter once every 5.68 years. After sending a washing machine-sized impactor to crash into the surface to study the material kicked off the comet, the Deep Impact probe continued through space on its way to a rendezvous with Comet Hartley 2 in November, 2010 under the name EPOXI. Another spacecraft NExT (formerly Stardust) has just revisted Comet Tempel I on February 15th.

Check it out at Wikipedia.