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mars simulation

Exiting the capsule. Photo: Rae Ellen Bichell/NPR

We have thought about Mars for a long time. Ancient people knew of it, probably first as a bright star and later as a planet. We saw it closer with telescopes, and we imagined Martians lived there. All the 1950s sci-fi books and movies that had aliens from our solar system had them coming from Mars.

Those Martians invading Earth have given way to humans invading Mars.

Is Mars as the next frontier for human exploration? It seems that way. In March, President Trump signed a bill reiterating NASA’s plan to send people to orbit Mars in the 2030s, with a goal of studying the possibility of “living off the land” there.

Movies like The Martian and Interstellar piqué our interest in living off-Earth – and make it seem more possible than it is right now.

As the U.S. in preparation for the Moon landing, we do simulated Mars exercises in the desert. The Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS), owned and operated by the Mars Society, is such a facility located in Utah. The site’s empty red hills and canyons have been a Mars testing ground for 16 years.

NPR did a story about Crew 177, a team of students and teachers from a Texas community college who had applied to spend a week in a two-story metal cylinder at the MDRS near Hanksville in southern Utah.

The Mars Society

The Mars Society is a nonprofit funded by grants, private donations and membership fees.

They once got donations from the [Elon] Musk Foundation, but he has his own plan to colonize Mars now.

The Society started using the Utah site in 2001. They are not affiliated with NASA who has its own simulation site in Hawaii. NASA runs simulated missions that last as long as a year.

Is this all about Mars exploration for scientific or economic gains? Or both? Or is Mars our Plan B?

Science fiction explored the Plan B idea a long time ago with Mars or other planets being a place to go if – or more likely, when – Earth is no longer habitable.

Joel Achenbach wrote in the Washington Post in 2016 that Mars is not a Plan B, but there are still some serious projects to get there for a variety of reasons.

And don’t we want to get out there before the aliens make their arrival here?

When the mothership lands, know who your friends are.

collecting specimens

An “extravehicular activity,” collecting rock specimens. Photo: Rae Ellen Bichell/NPR

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NASA photo

Detail of a 1998 NASA photo id STS088-724-66, described as showing an item of space debris,[1] an object claimed by conspiracy theorists to be an extraterrestrial satellite, the “Black Knight”

The Black Knight story is a very mixed bag of probably unrelated stories that touch on space exploration, fringe science, conspiracies, astronomical observations, real satellites and fuzzy photos. I don’t consider myself to be a conspiracy theory type, but I like oddball stories and legends.

Though this story is current, the legendary aspects go back to back to 1899. That’s when some repeating sources from “out there” were heard during radio experiments done by Nikola Tesla.

In 1928, an amateur radio operator, Jorgen Hals of Norway, reported these radio signals or echoes. I think we can confirm that these signals were not made by an Earth-launched satellite. Of course, that left things open to aliens.
The best explanation of these early observations is that they came from pulsars, which were not discovered until 1968. A pulsar (short for pulsating radio star) is a highly magnetized, rotating neutron star that emits a beam of electromagnetic radiation. When this radiation beam is pointing toward Earth , they can be observed.

But in 1954 when newspapers were already full of UFO stories, stories emerged saying that the U.S. Air Force had reported two unidentified “satellites” orbiting Earth. This was a time when no country could launch a satellite.
There was a British rocket called the Black Knight that was used in conjunction with the Blue Streak missile program between 1958 and 1965, to test re-entry vehicles. But that is a dead end, because the program never put anything into orbit. I found no explanation for why the supposed object picked up the name of Black Knight, but it’s a sexy name to use for a legend.

As we entered the age of the “space race,” a 1960 TIME magazine story reported that the U.S. Navy had detected a dark object thought to be a Soviet spy satellite. Later, they reported that it was “the remains of an Air Force Discoverer VIII satellite that had gone astray.” To the conspiracy theorists, the explanation wasn’t acceptable and military cover ups were a large part of the UFO community.

On the extreme end of this Black Knight legend are those that believe it is a 13,000 year old object of extraterrestrial origin in near-polar orbit. In 1973, Duncan Lunan analyzed the long-delayed radio echoes and speculated that they could originate from a 13,000 year old alien probe located in an orbit around the earth’s moon. But Lunan later retracted his own conclusions. Lunan, a Scottish astronomer and science fiction writer, interpreted a message caught in the 1920s by two Norwegian physicists that he said came from a probe orbiting the Moon and sent there by the inhabitants of a planet orbiting Epsilon Boötis. He would later go on to revoke his withdrawal.

On the real science side, we had astronaut Gordon Cooper supposedly reported a UFO sighting during his 15th orbit in Mercury 9 in 1963.  When he returned, there was a media blackout and NASA attributed it to hallucinations. Cooper had claimed to have seen several objects that were “unidentified.”

The 1998 NASA photo (above) is believed by some to show the Black Knight satellite. It was photographed during the STS-88 mission. Most scientific investigators seem to agree that the object photographed is a thermal blanket that was confirmed as lost by the crew of the Endeavor space shuttle as they worked on the developing the International Space Station.

YouTube user NUA’s video “Black Knight Satellite UFO Documentary – Truth Exposed 2015 – (Debunked)”  states that the proof is conclusive that the 1998 NASA images are no Black Knight but just that satellite thermal blanket.

But that has not stopped the legend. There are videos that claim that the Black Knight is real. People who want to believe in alien intelligence and visitors and visits to Earth by them cling to these stories. I saw the film Arrival recently. I enjoyed it and found it a great conversation starter about communications, time and the possibilities of alien intelligence. These stories intrigue many of us and the belief that the government is hiding information from the public only seems more credible every year.

So, if you support the legend, you will point to “facts” such as that in 1957, long before the lost blanket, Dr. Luis Corralos of the Communications Ministry in Venezuela photographed the Black Knight while taking pictures of Sputnik II as it passed over Caracas. This unknown object was also seen “shadowing” the Sputnik 1 Spacecraft and the UFO (not identified as the Black Knight then) was in Polar orbit.

Again, this was in a time when no country could maintain a spacecraft in Polar Orbit. The first Polar-orbitingg satellite was launched in 1960. What’s the significance of this type of orbit? Polar orbits are often used for earth-mapping and observation, capturing the planet from one point.

I found online mentions of other sightings in the 1960′s of this polar-orbiting Black Knight and even estimates that the object’s weight was over 10 tons which would have made it the heaviest artificial satellite orbiting Earth.

On September 3, 1960, a tracking camera at Grumman Aircraft Corporation’s Long Island, NY factory is said to have taken a a photograph of the Black Knight in which it looks more like an aircraft than a satellite.

Looking more like an aircraft

Looking more like an aircraft?

I also have not found any explanations for why the Black Knight is here or what its purpose would be. Like that Arrival film (and maybe more so in the story the film is based on) story, those are really the big questions. And like addressed in that film, you would think the military of some country would have blasted the thing if it was seen as any kind of threat.

Did the Black Knight satellite and its radio messages originate from the Epsilon Bootes Star System 13.000 years ago? Epsilon Boötis (AKA Epsilon Boo or Izar) is a star in the northern constellation of Boötes and it came up in a Star Trek episode (“Whom Gods Destroy”) when the character Kelvar Garth is also referred to as Garth of Izar. Maybe that is where the Black Knight belongs – in science fiction.

glenn

f7-mercury-wikimedia

I wrote a letter to John Glenn in 1963. I was 10 years old. That was a traumatic year for me. A year when my father became very ill with a disease that would take his life six years later. Glenn was heroic to many people and especially to kids then. He was a space cowboy. But, looking back, I think that he also represented to me some escape from this world which wasn’t a place I wanted to be.

John Glenn Jr. died yesterday. He was 95. He was an aviator, engineer, astronaut, and United States Senator from Ohio. But my connection to him was strongest back when he was one of the “Mercury Seven” test pilots selected by NASA to become America’s first astronauts and fly the Project Mercury spacecraft.

At my elementary school, we watched him in 1962 when he flew the Friendship 7 mission and became the first American to orbit the Earth. We sat in a half-circle on the floor of the school gymnasium and looked at a medium-sized black and white television set. It was great.

He wasn’t the first person to go into space. He was the fifth person. Two Russian cosmonauts were first, and there were earlier sub-orbital flights by Mercury astronauts Alan Shepard and Gus Grissom.  Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth. He circled the planet three times in a flight that lasted just under five hours.

helmet
In 1962, I dressed for Halloween as an astronaut with a homemade spacesuit and my Steve Canyon Jet Helmet on which I had labeled “Ken.” I felt extremely cool.

John Glenn answered my letter. He sent a short note that seemed to be written in response to my own letter, and it had what I’ll assume is his own signature, an 8×10 photo and a booklet about the space program.

I had told him that as much as I wanted to be an astronaut, I was sure I would never have that chance. For one thing, I wore eyeglasses and had read that knocked me out of the flight school path to space that all the astronauts had followed. I also said I thought I would be too afraid to go into space.

He replied that there were many things I could do to help the country and the space program besides being an astronaut.

My father wanted me to be an engineer. He worked at Bell Labs in New Jersey before he became ill and had worked on components for the Telstar satellite.

The original Telstar belonged to AT&T as part of a multi-national agreement among AT&T, Bell Telephone Laboratories, NASA, GPO (United Kingdom) and the National PTT (France) in order to develop experimental satellite communications over the Atlantic Ocean.

Our family went to a Christmas party at Bell Labs in 1962. There was full size model of Telstar there which I assumed was the actual satellite and that it had been brought down for the party.

Telstar relayed through space the first television pictures, telephone calls, and fax images, and provided the first live transatlantic television feed.

I read a book about Glenn many years later when he first announced a run for the Senate. I remember that he said that he saw no contradiction between believing in God and the knowledge that evolution is “a fact” that should be taught in schools. I liked that ability to hold two supposedly incompatible ideas as beliefs simultaneously, and I agree with him.

Glenn gave me second hope for my childhood astronaut dream when on October 29, 1998 (while still a sitting senator) he became the oldest person to fly in space. At 77, he flew on the Space Shuttle as a Payload Specialist on Discovery mission STS-95.

Telstar 1 and 2 are no longer functional, but they still orbit the Earth.

I like that they are still out there in space.

 

About Telstar

Settler as imagined in the National Geographic Mars series.

Settler as imagined in the National Geographic Mars series.

In our movies and novels, the Moon or Mars is usually the other place for humans to live in our solar system. It seems more fiction than reality, but they are closer and more hospitable compared to Mercury and Venus.

I’m watching the Mars series on the National Geographic channel now. Turns out, despite movies, books and TV shows, the Moon and Mars have no protective magnetosphere or atmosphere and that makes them lousy choices for colonies. Galactic Cosmic Rays (GCR), the energetic particles from distant supernovae, bombard both places and humans just can’t live long-term under those conditions.

I was surprised to see an article at scientificamerican.com that says that beyond Mars, the next best potential home is among the moons of Jupiter and Saturn. There are dozens of those and it seems that the best option is Saturn’s largest moon Titan. It is the most Earthlike body  in our system.

 

titan

Composite infrared image of Saturn’s moon Titan from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona/University of Idaho. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Titan is the only other body in the solar system with liquid on the surface. These are not watering or fishing holes though. They are lakes of methane and ethane. It rains methane on Titan.

Titan has a nitrogen atmosphere 50 percent thicker than Earth’s for protection. There are vast quantities of hydrocarbons in solid and liquid form on the surface that can be used for energy.

No oxygen in the atmosphere, but water ice just below the surface could be used to provide oxygen for breathing and to combust hydrocarbons as fuel.

You’ll need warm clothing with your respirators. It’s cold on Titan. How does  -180°C (-291°F) sound? But the plus of that thick atmosphere is that if you are a Titanian you won’t need pressure suits.

We can build shelters of plastic produced from the plentiful resources there. Nice domes inflated by warm oxygen and nitrogen would give us huge indoor spaces.

Titan’s weak gravity and thick atmosphere would allow you to leap easily and maybe even fly with some type of wings on your back. Falling would be gentle.

But don’t pack your suitcases just yet. Currently, we can’t really get to Titan or even Mars. We need faster propulsion to limit the time in space and those doses of GCR. The trip currently would take seven years.

As Charles Wohlforth and Amanda Hendrix, authors of Beyond Earth: Our Path to a New Home in the Planets, say:

There is no quick way to move off the Earth. We will have to solve our problems here. But if our species continues to invest in the pure science of space exploration and the stretch technology needed to preserve human health in space, people will eventually live on Titan.

 

This post might sound very improbable, but it’s not a completely hypothetical idea. One day, it will certainly have a chance of happening. The idea is that we might “seed” life on another planet via a human corpse.

Imagine that an astronaut dies in space. Remember what happened to Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) in the film Gravity? The two spacewalking astronauts in that film become tangled in cords and, realizing that the cords will not support both of them, Matt detaches to save his partner. He drifts away.

 

 

We are talking seriously now about going to Mars. It is a long journey, and maybe a death occurs en route. If we had a burial at space, the corpse could be adrift for a decade or a thousand years. It might be pulled into the gravity of a planet. It might burn up in a star. But it might land on a planet.

The idea with a corpse seed is that it could deliver living microbes, viruses and bacteria that survive to a place and spark a genesis of some new life entirely.

We know that our body contains microbes that can survive long periods of time in stasis in cold, dry environments similar to space.

Of course, we are not talking about that corpse creating a human on the distant world, but life in some form. The three  key factors appear to be what holds the corpse (a spacesuit or a spacecraft), the storage environment, and how long it travels to that planet (long-term exposure to radiation would hurt).

Corpses in a spacecraft that crashes into a planet and busts open spilling well-maintained corpses (perhaps not frozen, though freeze-dried bacteria can also survive) into a hospitable environment could do it.

Scientists say that a corpse without creatures (worms, beetles etc.) to speed up the decaying process, would provide fuel for many generations of bacteria, for thousands of years.

Scientists have said that life on Earth occurred because of an unlikely combination of perfect conditions.  That body bag of amino acids, fats, proteins, carbohydrates and microbes existing in ideal conditions would be the spark.

What this “starter-pack of chemistry” might create as a lifeform is unknown, but it’s an interesting idea.

 

What might be considered the oldest government computer is more than 12 billion miles from Earth.

There were two Voyager probes launched in 1977. They both have 69.63 kilobytes of total computer memory on board. That is almost exactly equal to the memory required for the illustration of Voyager in this post. They still work because were set to overwrite old data once it has been sent to Earth.

Artist's Concept of Voyager

Artist’s impression of Voyager 1  – image via WikiMedia Commons

The Voyager program was to study the outer Solar System. Oddly, Voyager 1 launched 16 days after its twin, Voyager 2. It has been sending data for 39 years. It still communicates with the Deep Space Network to receive routine commands and return data.

It was 135 AU (2.02×1010 km) from the Sun as of June 2016, making it the farthest spacecraft from Earth.

Voyager 1 visited Jupiter and Saturn before a flyby of Saturn’s moon Titan set it on a trajectory out of the solar system. Voyager 2 also visited those planets before heading to Uranus and Neptune. It is currently in the Heliosheath, a zone in the outer limits of the Sun’s magnetic field.

You may remember Voyager because each probe carries a gold-plated audio-visual disc in the event that the spacecraft is ever found by intelligent life forms from other planetary systems. I wrote about the discs in my “Hello Aliens!” post. The “records” have photos of the Earth and its lifeforms, scientific information, spoken greetings from Earthlings, “Sounds of Earth” audio with whales, a baby crying, waves breaking on a shore, and music (including works by Mozart, Blind Willie Johnson, Chuck Berry, and Valya Balkanska, Eastern and Western classics and indigenous music from around the world.   It also has a greeting to the aliens in 55 different languages.

record_is_attached_to_voyager_1

gold-plated disc being attached to Voyager 1

The Voyager probes are not the only artificial objects we have launched that are leaving the Solar System. There is a pretty large list of space probes and their upper stages launched by NASA the aliens might come across out there. And we have others closer to home that are in orbit around planets or around the Sun.

More at wikipedia.org/wiki/Voyager_1

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