Transitions into Space

Before I begin this post I just want to wish everyone an extremely late New Year. I had originally planned to make this post around that time, but my lack of having an internet connection at my home, bad weather, the new school semester starting, and some family issues; I just wasn’t able to make it in time. I apologize to anyone that might have hoped for an update sooner, as I realize it’s been well over a month since I made my last post on the Anthropocene. Also, yesterday was my birthday so there’s that little quibble too!

It seems that the closer we get to NASA Space Shuttle Discovery’s final launch, currently targeted for February 24th (it’s been moved forward since around November), the more people seem to wonder what’s next for NASA and more importantly for human space exploration in general. Many nations have been jumping on the rocket firing process. Right around Christmas India’s Geostationary Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) carrying its GSAT 5-P communication satellite exploded during launch. I just happened to have pulled up a nice little video of it for you…

Even though India’s launch failed they have launched a large number of satellites into space in the past. This news probably isn’t too new of course, but it begs the question still about the future of human space exploration. With more nations becoming space faring nations that offers many more opportunities for discoveries to be made. Of course even with NASA stopping the shuttle program, who’s last launch is currently scheduled for Atlantis around April 2011, it hasn’t discouraged people from finding new an innovative ways into space.

You might be asking why NASA has decided to retire the space shuttle. It’s mostly economics and financial difficulties, but also that the shuttle is an outdated way of getting humans into space. Each missions costs nearly 450 million dollars to undertake, and the amount of fuel required is around 500,000 gallons of liquid oxygen and liquid helium. This isn’t taking into account when missions get pushed further and further back and have to be re-planned and dated, costing vital manpower and resources.

To counter this, NASA has been encouraging the designs of private space companies such as SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, and Space Adventures to help relieve a lot of the research and development costs that the United States Government has barely been keeping up with. With private companies and revenue earned from space tourism, it opens NASA to many more research opportunities and frees their schedule for more  projects. Of course while NASA appreciates the research to new launch vehicles by private companies, they’re hesitant to support space tourism fully. There are a number of health concerns and highly expensive risks to traveling in space, the most costly of which is human life.

However, there’s already been seven people launched into space as “tourists”. The first of which was Dennis Tito in 2001, pictured to the left obviously supporting tourism in space. Of course it doesn’t come cheap. Dennis flew in 2001 for a reported $20 million on the Soyuz TM-32 rocket based in Russia. The price for the Soyuz model rocket ride really hasn’t gone down, but Virgin Galactic plans to send people into space for an amount starting out at roughly 200,000$, and eventually lower it to 20,000$.

But we’re missing the point here, this is about human kind’s transition into space. While Space tourism is offering this to people for a hefty fee, the main concern for anyone heading into space is making things faster, cheaper, more efficient, and more importantly safer. Space travel is already the riskiest and most dangerous endeavor we’ve taken on, and things really haven’t got much better since the 60’s.

There’s a lot of concepts out there for a new design aside from the simple Expendable Rocket model the Space Shuttle uses. While the Space Shuttle isn’t completely expendable, most of the design is, which makes each launch very expensive. Virgin Galactic’s idea of using a transport craft to carry the shuttle design high in the atmosphere is a cost effective option. However there’s a lot of non-propellant options to getting through the atmosphere that have been developed, such as…

1.) Mass Drivers


A Mass Driver works by using coils of energized electric wires to slingshot a vehicle into space. This conceptual picture is of one that would be placed on the moon, but one could just as easily be made on Earth, so long as you designed it to be able to defeat the Gravity of Earth at 9.81 m/s^2.


2.) Space Elevators



A Space Elevator is one of the more technically feasible projects that could get us into space. It implements a design similar to a normal everyday elevator, except with a cable tethered into space. The cable would need to be able to withstand the enormous speeds the planet rotates at, but that might not be too far off in development as Carbon nanotubing, possibly through the use of Graphene could easily withstand such forces. This would save billions as the use of propellants would almost not be needed and goods could easily be sent on a car into space.


3.) The Rocket Plane (or Space Plane)

This is probably the most likely scenario. Mass Driver’s seem to be impractical and if a Space Elevator was ever built it would be a prime target for terrorists, causing money to be spent often on defense. The Space Plane is already in development and is taking off fast. Virgin Galactic has already managed to get a head start in this department.



The point of all this is that we’re out of options when it comes to the Space Shuttle. It has lasted us a long time, but it’s become obselete. As more and more research is done into these other areas of engineering, physics, and astronomy, we’ll slowly start seeing the Space Shuttle move from it’s place as top dog to a piece of Astronomical History. Even still, I doubt anyone that has seen a launch can forget something as powerful as this video presents.


Alien Life Forms – Humanoid, Amphibian, or Something Literally Out of This World.

I’ve been wondering for awhile what Alien life forms might be like, assuming we ever come into some form of contact with it. While most Astrobiologists suggest the obvious, that if we were to find life it would most likely be bacterial lifeforms and not the average person’s idea of life. However, while I may be probing my imagination a little bit, I often stop to wonder what lifeforms might exist out there aside from our tiny planet.

It’s only been just recently that Astronomers discovered Gliese 581g, a small exoplanet orbiting the star Gliese 581 in the constellation Libra. This planet is remarkable in that it is tidally locked with it’s star, making one side extremely cold and the other extremely hot, while the would be Prime Meridian of the planet is the perfect temperature. Not only is there an area on the planet for life to exist, but the planet also orbits in the so-called “Goldilocks zone”, the area just ripe for life where it’s not too hot and not too cold.

This has got me thinking deeply about what kind of life might arise. If you look at the diverse amount of life forms Earth has created, there’s almost no limit to what you might dream up. A few months ago Discovery Channel released Stephen Hawking’s “Into the Universe” which portrayed the following video.

Another strange thing to think about is that if water is abundant in the universe, and if water is one of the most important things for life to exist, it follows then that life could exist even on things that may not be considered “worlds”. Comets and asteroids can sometimes house water, is it too far to say that they could also house life? I like to imagine creatures that live on the backs of comets, sailing through our solar system.

Jupiter’s own moon Europa may house tons of life buried beneath it’s massive cracked ice sheets. The moon is constantly churned by Jupiter’s gravity, which creates artificial tides beneath the ice sheets. This can create a friction underneath the moon’s ice that warms it just enough to support life in it’s hidden ocean. Could this life be synonymous with our own sea life? Are there forms of fish, shark, whales, and dolphin – though very morphologically different – that exist beneath it’s ice? Maybe they resemble Cretaceous dinosaurs, and yet still they could resemble something the likes of which we can’t imagine!

This is why to an Science nerd or geek, and I use those terms interchangeably, Science Fiction is so appealing. Will we one day in the future discover lifeforms that resemble those of the Star Wars Universe?

Because who couldn’t love a Bith?

Gene Roddenberry was ahead of his time in technological fiction in Star Trek, and thanks to his imagination in a way gave birth to a multitude of technology that were once thought impossible. Isaac Asimov’s I,Robot is starting to seem more and more a reality with the new French Aldebaran creation the Nao Robot.

And here I have another possibility that might arise. Might we find synthetic life? A life form that can only be explained away by another intelligent life form having created it synthetically? We have ourselves created robotics and even an entire synthetic cell capable of reproduction.

It seems there’s no limit to human imagination, partly I would say because we are a part of Nature’s seemingly limitless imagination. I’d like to quote Richard Feynman here, as this is one of my favorite quotes by him, it literally gives me chill every time I hear it.

“I think nature’s imagination is so much greater than man’s, She’s never gonna let us relax.”

Virgin Galactic – Can you hear me Major Tom?

It seems we won’t have to wait too far to be shot up into space, or I suppose the better word would be flown. Virgin Galactic, a branch of the Virgin Group owned by Sir Richard Charles Nicholas Branson, plans to start flying people into space by 2015 for a measly 200,000$. Ok, so maybe it’s not THAT measly, but considering it’s going to be one of the first commercial airlines (or spacelines?) to fly you into space, it’s not that ridiculous.

The vehicle they’ve developed, titled the Virgin Galactic Spaceship Two, is a very science fiction looking aircraft designed to be hauled by the WhiteKnightII, another aircraft shaped strangely like a WWII bomber.

The Galactic II
The WhiteKnightII seen dropping the Galactic II.

The total cost will run 200,000$ with a 20,000$ deposit. The actual flight plan consists of a 3.5 hour flight total, with about 6 minutes of weightlessness.  NASA in February of 2007 also signed a memorandum of understanding, showing a possible collaboration between the two companies.

It seems the 2015 date is still on schedule as Virgin has successfully flown the Galactic II on it’s first solo flight as of last night. It was still carried 45,000ft. into the air by the White Knight II, but last night was the first successful flight where it was released from it’s carrier. It flew for a solid 11 minutes unaided by the White Knight II before landing.
Makes me wonder though if Virgin Records will have any say in some music on the flight. It’d add a little bit of charm I think, so long as you’re not playing Bowie’s Space Oddity… something about playing a song about a crashing spacecraft on a spacecraft that doesn’t sit well with superstition.
…maybe that’s just me.
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