Mars stays in the news today, despite a passionate plea for some Sun centred love from Discovery, in response to the SDO probe images. Back to Mars and images from the ‘webcam’ on Mars Express have shown the Tharsis volcanoes. Of course if orbiters with webcams aren’t your thing, how about Mars rover with 3D cameras – which is what Curiosity, the 2011 mission to Mars, should be thanks to James Cameron, more usually noted for dealing with little blue aliens than big red planets. Meanwhile, astrobiologists are looking forward to a potential soil return mission from the Red Planet. ESA and NASA plan to launch a joint three part mission, with slated blast offs in 2016, 2018 and 2020, the soil return mission would follow on from this sometime in the 2020s. Speaking of Martian microbes, a new experiment on a meteorite in which the possible signatures of microbes from Mars were found hopes to shed a little light on the problem. The experiment will look at the composition of material in the potential fossils and that around it. By doing this, they will be able to determine if these shapes in the rock are made from the same stuff as the rock itself (supporting a geological formation) or if additional material had been introduced at these sites (pointing more towards life). The rock under the microscope is NWA 998, the third meteorite to show the tiny features (along with one in London and the original, ALH8400).
Looking at Mars for microbes might be the best chance we have of finding some evidence of an alien biosphere if an article published in the journal Astrobiology is anything to go by. Astrobiologists discussed the potential shape of exoplanet hunting satellites to come. They predicted that over 15-25 years there would be two generations of 1.5-2.5m telescopes going up, the first with crude coronographs (blobs to blot out central starlight) to conduct searches for the reflected and emitted light of planets around other stars and the second with more refined coronographs and related technology to hunt for the same. After this time, there may well be a point at which optical interferometry is used (multiple spacecraft acting as one telescope from distant points) to provide the kind of resolution required – a figure they mention is for a 100 pixel image of a planet twice the size of Earth 16.3 light years away, satellite separation needs to be 43 miles apart. Such images may reveal some features on the planet that change over time and with the seasons, spectroscopy could reveal compositional features that may indicate a ‘biosphere’ – atmospheric species promoted by biological rather than geological processes – or even more hopefully, a technosphere – things that can’t be explained in any way other than the action of an intelligent civilisation putting out a beacon.
But back to Earth and more spaceflighty stuff. The latest generation of Global Positioning System satellites has passed through Area 59 and is preparing for launch. GPS 2F will see its first three satellites launch from pad 37b at Cape Canaveral on May 20th on a Delta 4 rocket and could see the launch of the second set as early as November from Complex 41, atop an Atlas 5, at the behest of Air Force Space Command. It will follow approximately sixty GPS launches in three decades and will bring higher accuracy, in-orbit programmable electronics and enhanced anti-blocking capabilities. This will be the first time a GPS satellite has been launched direct to final orbit as the previous launches used Delta 2 rockets, which had to stop partway there, leaving the satellite to boost itself into the final orbit. A detailed article on the satellites is here.
Meanwhile, an idea has been mooted about bringing old satellites back down to Earth after use. In a development of the old idea of blasting them with lasers, a group has designed a type of thruster operated by a laser firing into a propellant that then heats up, outgasses and causes the spacecraft to change direction. Lasers either on board the spacecraft itself or even on a different satellite could be used to cause the outgassing, and with a suitable set of mirrors in place, the laser on one satellite could fire and bring the target toward it or away from it, up or down, though this would represent a technological challenge in formation flying and shooting.
But how about putting people closer to space? Space Adventure, the American firm that arranges the space tourism visits to places like the International Space Station has signed a deal with Armadillo to develop a vertical launch vehicle to put people to the edge of suborbital space for a few minutes before plunging down again. This delight will put you back $102,000, around half the price of a seat on SpaceShipTwo. If you’d rather just sit back and hear about suborbital flight and training, here’s a podcast from Joe Hill on NASA Blueshift.
…and finally, the 2010 recipient of the Rotary National Award for Space Achievement has gone to the Associate Administrator for Space Operations at NASA Headquarters in Washington, DC, William H. Gerstenmaier. He began his work in NASA in 1977 in wind tunnels and then carried on up the greasy pole, working mainly on aspects of the shuttle program, which now falls under his remit along with the International Space Station, space communications and space launch vehicles. A full biography is here.