Scientists using European Space Agency’s Herschel Space Observatory have detected water vapor escaping from two regions on the dwarf planet / asteroid Ceres. The question then becomes whether it is erupting from cold volcanoes or if it is subliming, with a possible answer coming in 2015 when the NASA Dawn spacecraft orbits the planet/asteroid. Water on Ceres supports “models of the solar system in which giant planets, such as Jupiter, migrated to their current positions, mixing material from the outer and inner regions of the solar system. This mixing could have moved Ceres and Vesta far from the sites where they formed. Ceres probably formed close to its current position, but accreted material from further out. … The findings also suggest that asteroids may have delivered some of the water in Earth’s oceans.”

And, strangely enough, Ceres features in James Corey’s Leviathan Wakes, which I just finished reading. Cue Twilight Zone music…

Water on Mars

I didn’t know that water on Mars had previously been discussed. Given the job of reading Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy, I couldn’t help but imagine a not-so-distant future where the presence of water on Mars becomes central to colonization efforts of the planet.

Sites of dark streaks on Mars

Sites of dark streaks on Mars

See: Nature.

Space Science Roundup

I will, at some point, have to write some science fiction set in space, if for no other reason than it will be the only way that I will ever get into space. Clearly, watching a man walk on the moon at four years of age had a deep and lasting impact on me. (I have no other way to explain my fascination with space exploration, except perhaps my mother’s love of Star Trek.)

  • The first thing that caught my eye was the idea that how the moon was formed was not, as I had grown to believe, established. Far from it. That big impact that spewed debris into our orbit that congealed into the moon? Maybe that isn’t the way it was.
  • NASA listens to Jupiter and so can you. (At least now I want to try.) NASA even has a Radio Jove program that lets you set up your own radio astronomy station.
  • There’s some new rocket technology that might make travel in our neighborhood faster: the VASIMR plasma rocket: “VASIMR stands for Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket, which makes use of argon gas (one of the most stable gasses known to man) and a renewable source of energy found in space, radio waves in the form of light.” On Space Industry News.
  • Here at home there are vast reserves of freshwater trapped beneath the oceans. On ABC Science.
  • Finally, Space.com has coverage of scientists telling Congress that we have the technology to discover alien life. (The trick, it seems to me, would be to find intelligent life in Congress.) On Space.com.

Starship Design

The Economist reports on the most recent meeting of the Royal Astronomical Society that took up the question of starship design, which, it turns out, is enjoying a bit of a boom. This may very well be because of the recent proliferation of not only international space agencies but also of private space agencies. As the report makes clear, there is a distinct difference between getting objects into orbit, especially low earth orbit, and getting from Earth to some place else either in the solar system or, as the name starship implies, from one solar system to another.

China’s Space Program

China’s space program made the pages of Foreign Policy. Of course the headline was provocative. But the reactions in the comments get really vitriolic. “America sucks!” “No, China sucks!” Really? Is this the best we can do? Having just returned from China, I can tell you that I was struck by the sheer amount of what the Chinese are doing: they have money and they have people, and they seem to be investing that money in ways that benefit people. (If the long-term vision of the communists was to kill off the mandarin, they seem to be taking that mission somewhat seriously. Meanwhile, we seem to be growing our own mandarins here in the U.S.A. at a prolific rate.)

Saturn as Seen by Cassini

Beautiful shot of Saturn from NASA’s Cassini space craft as it eclipses the sun:

Saturn as Seen by Cassini

This one is Lily who once wanted to be the first princess astronaut on Saturn and still maintains her interest in space and space travel. Thank you, my dear.

Curiosity’s First Images of Mars

This image was used to create the larger panorama that is attracting so much attention but what I find compelling about this image is just how, well, how quotidian it is. I’ve walked places on Earth that looked like this. For the first time in a long time, I want to step foot on Mars. I want to be there.

Click Image to Download Larger Version

Solar Storms

ABC Science’s write-up about solar storms is a bit dramatic, but then they throw in this little fact:

Now the electrical grids around the world are mostly old, fragile and overloaded. In the USA alone, minor solar storms already cause breakdowns to the grid that increase the cost of electricity by $500 million every 18 months.

It’s a little unnerving to realize that solar storms are already a fairly significant drain on our infrastructure. It makes me wonder if anyone is working on sturdier gear and if that gear is affordable.

IAMA NASA

Reddit has spawned a number of genres for and among its community of readers and writers. One of the most compelling of those genres is the AMA, short for “Ask Me Anything.” They are housed under the URL IAMA, which is a pun on the acronym that allows a poster to begin with “I am a …” I really like the indefinite article in there: it emphasizes that correspondents are often speaking from personal experience of a category of work or experience. Such a gesture de-emphasizes the individual, which helps, I think, to take a little air out of the celebrity culture that seems to dominate so much of public discourse. In the process of doing so, it makes individuals who are responding out of their experience into mini-celebrities, again tilting the balance to something more interesting than: here is a small group of famous (or rich) people and everyone else is a schmuck.

Nowhere could there be a better example of this than a recent AMA from a 97 year old who worked for NASA during the first fourteen Apollo missions. Let’s face it, any 97 year old as articulate as this is going to make for compelling reading, and anyone who has passed through as many history-making events or met as many renown individuals and who is willing to speak so honestly is going to tell us things we need to know. Perhaps the biggest bit was this: the idea to slingshot Apollo 13 around the moon came from a now unknown MIT grad student who was later obscured from the historical record because he had long hair and a beard and NASA felt it couldn’t afford to shake its careful facade.