Looking up!

/Looking up!

LightSail 2 is away!

LightSail2, launch - by Kai Staats

LightSail2, Skyscape - by Kai Staats There is nothing quite like a rocket launch. The anticipation builds with the first arrivals, waiting in line from late afternoon into the evening, sun scorching, humidity suffocating. Hundreds, eventually more than 2500 people came from across the United States, from around the world to witness a dance between technology, gravity, and the stars. The possibility of catastrophe and success feel equally balanced, a tug-o-war that no one can fully predict. Only after the vehicle and one-of-a-kind payloads are far away from the launch pad, is there a sense of growing comfort to override the lingering fear.

LightSail2, spectators - by Kai Staats In a time when the news is too often confusing, saddening, even heart wrenching, I am reminded of the ways in which we successfully come together to design, build, and delight in exploration of the unknown. This spacecraft started it’s journey four decades ago, with Carl Sagan, Louis Friedman, and NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory director Bruce Murray … and my childhood mentor Carl Berglund and his team at JPL. He was the lead engineer on the original SolarSail, as described by Jason Davis for the Planetary Society in Old documents shine new light on NASA’s plan to send a solar sail to Halley’s Comet

The Planetary Society is now successful in launching not one, but two LightSails, demonstration that we live in a NewSpace era, no longer bound to the encumbered government organizations. In one week, LightSail2 will disembark from its carrier vessel and demonstrate the capacity for a spacecraft to maneuver, even alter its orbit around a strong gravitational body using electromagnetic impulses, reaction wheels, and the pressure of light from the sun.

LightSail2, second stage - by Kai Staats This was my full circle, a return to ages 6 and 7 through my early teens when repeat visits to NASA JPL helped shape my passion for space exploration. Thank you Carl, Dan Heim, Jim Bell and the School of Earth & Space Exploration at ASU, my associates at LIGO and ISU, and many more who have in the past decade brought me back into the space sciences and a foundational sense of hope for what we can do.

LightSail2, spectators - by Kai Staats LightSail2, countdown - by Kai Staats LightSail2, booster return - by Kai Staats LightSail2, booster landing - by Kai Staats

By |2019-07-01T15:48:05-04:00June 25th, 2019|Looking up!|Comments Off on LightSail 2 is away!

Postcard from Mars – a SIMOC update: March 10, 2018

At 8 pm this evening, the ASU Capstone team that has been developing the SIMOC game interface will have completed the first working prototype. This brings to fruition six months development of this unique agent model, and lays the foundation for its continued evolution.

As with all software projects, we begin with the blue sky as our goal, and a belief that we will reach that far. In October, November, and December of 2017 we engaged two calls each week, Saturday and Monday evenings. These 1-3 hour brainstorming sessions were a chance for the entire team to explore the possibilities of a scalable, mathematical model with a gaming interface.

We continually juggled the need to build a scientific foundation, a tool to be used for research with the goal to provide a gaming interface that engaged the non-scientific community (while yet producing scientific data, under the hood). While I have extensive experience in software development through my ten years as CEO of Terra Soft, and each of the ASU team came on-board with skills and experience ranging from Python to C, bash to CSS and SQL servers, none of us have built anything quite like this. None of us was truly the leader, nor anyone following. We all pitched in, challenged each other in the conversations, and slowly laid a design foundation that seemed to work.

ASU undergraduate astronomy student Tyler Cox came on-board in July 2017 to get the ball rolling. He built the first, working agent-based model (ABM) using Python and the Mesa library. He was able to quickly demonstrate a functional “astronaut in a can” model in which the initial parameters determined if the human crew of astronauts lived or died (they mostly died). Even our simple model with a light interaction between humans, a few species of plants, and a contained atmosphere proved tricky as even a minor imbalance in the system lead to catastrophic results.

SIMOC data flow by Ben Mccord

In January the capstone team duplicated Tyler’s work on an Amazon web server, integrating SIMOC into an SQL database instead of the original JSON configuration files. Following a minor setback in which we realized Unity was overkill and a good ol’ web interface would suffice, we reset our expectations and started again. The end result goes lives tonight at 8 pm Arizona Mountain Time. It will be simple, and a little rough around the edges, but the Launch screen, Configuration Wizard, and Dashboard (game interface) will be complete (for now).

I have enjoyed the pleasure of working with the following ASU undergraduate students through the Computer Science Capstone team: Ben McCord, Greg Schoberth, Terry Turner, Thomas Curry, and Yves Koulidiati. In addition, we have this year welcomed the incredibly talented, widely published space artist and habitat designer Bryan Versteeg of Spacehabs.com as a backbone to our design process. And most recently, Kevin Hubbard comes to us with a strong foundation in the social sciences, his intent to introduce a means by which we can integrate human social behavior into a more advanced version of our model.

By |2019-07-07T13:53:05-04:00March 10th, 2018|Looking up!, Ramblings of a Researcher|Comments Off on Postcard from Mars – a SIMOC update: March 10, 2018

Postcard from Mars – a SIMOC update: February 5, 2018

Rover by Bryan Versteeg Just two weeks ago our work on SIMOC resumed. The holiday break was longer than anticipated (by me). I feel we lost some momentum from the pace we set last fall, but we are regaining now, shooting for a working prototype by the Interplanetary Initiative meeting March 5.

The team made a decision last week to abandon Unity as our game play engine, instead building a Javascript web interface. While we will have less total functionality, we are now more closely aligned with the current goals of this first version of our game play interface. And we will far more easily achieve the desired cross-platform support through a web interface. This decision cost us a week-long sprint of agile programming. Not a tremendous amount of time, but a loss that could have been avoided had I. A lesson learned, but no long-term damage done.

Greenhouse by Bryan Versteeg With the start of the new year we welcomed Bryan Versteeg, world renowned space artist onto the team. He is now leading the design of the game play interface and playing “pieces”, the icons that represent the growing, off-world community.

By |2019-07-07T13:55:01-04:00February 5th, 2018|Looking up!, Ramblings of a Researcher|Comments Off on Postcard from Mars – a SIMOC update: February 5, 2018

The Elephant, the Lion, and the Skies of the Karoo

Everyone desires a safe space, a home base, a place to return to when everything else in life is unsettled. For some, this is a certain room in the family home. For others, a timeshare overlooking the waterfront in a far-away town tourists have not yet discovered. Some travel to the cities while others escape, seeking something a little less whelming.

I too have my safe places. Buffalo Peak Ranch in the Colorado Rocky Mountains, our family farm in rural Iowa, and Sutherland, South Africa. This past week I was given the opportunity to return to the South African Astronomical Observatory. The drive from Cape Town to the Sutherland site is, no matter how many times you have made the journey, an adventure, a flight through space and time despite the confines of this planet’s gravity.

Those at the point of departure provide assistance in loading your travel bags and wish you well. Upon arrival, the guest house staff greet you by name, no matter how long since your last visit, and provide the keys to your dormitory. With hushed voices and careful motion we unpack and settle in, for the astronomers are yet sleeping. As with African game preserves where human visitors peer out from protective blinds to watch the animal world unfold, astronomers use telescopes to watch the cosmos evolve, to observe both the mundane and the most spectacular stellar shows.

Those areas in the world in which dark night skies yet exist are a kind of sanctuary, a place where we are reminded of what it means to be inspired. From our unique vantage point in this cosmic wilderness blind, we see new-born stars, middle-aged nobles, and ancient giants intermixed with nebulae, supernova, and massive black holes. To witness one rapidly rotating, small but massive neutron star consuming it’s neighbour through a dance that lasts eons is to watch the lion consume the elephant in painfully slow motion, frame by inexorable frame.

What we observe is explained through the application of physics, chemistry, and mathematics. While the interaction between stellar bodies is anticipated, even considered routine, there remains the daunting, bewildering, difficult to explain phenomena which send researchers into overdrive for decades.

It is the data of the routine which confirms our formulae. It is the unexpected which keeps us hungry for more.

Upon arrival to the guest house at the observatory I was filled with emotionally charged memories of my grandparents’ farm in Iowa. The anticipation that builds with the first glimpse of the domes on the horizon is to crest the edge of the Pride of the Valley farm, the final stretch of the curving road, and ultimate descent into the complex of white buildings.

Inside, each piece of furniture has its place and orientation, the sofas, the chairs adorned by cloth covers too easily wrinkled and caught in the spaces between the cushions. Throw pillows are returned each day to their proper position. The pool table is showing its age, the felt torn and the legs less stable. One can complain, or enjoy the added challenge. The library has been stripped nearly bare as the journals are now entirely digital. Yet the aroma from the kitchen, the sound of the kettle boiling, the light wind buffeting the west-facing windows all say, ‘Welcome home!’.

By mid-afternoon intense conversations unfold as the engaged astronomers rise and those of us who retain fairly normal sleeping hours share the dining hall and common space. Steven, Retha, and I, the next day joined by Willie and Lisa covered more topics than I do recall, from the generation of water from humid air to the politics of South Africa, to data reduction and the application of Machine Learning against the wishes of those who are not yet ready to let go of their scripts and proved techniques.

With all telescopes at the SAAO observatory now capable of being remotely controlled, there is debate about the value of sending astronomers to these remote locations. For certain, the mechanical aspects of pointing the instrument to a distant object, capturing photons, and moving onto the next can be done without a being on-site. Yet, it is the draw of the dark night skies, the bliss of isolation, those moments of being only here, right now, that draw us into this place.

It is my experience and my hope that astronomers will continue to come to these places for the same reason we venture to witness the elephant and the lion, not on-screen. The sound of the wind whipping over the top of the open dome, the smell of the machine oil, the sensation that one has stepped into a spacecraft destined for anywhere cannot be reproduced through a remote connection.

Until the next visit to Sutherland, I will recall that for those brief four days, I enjoyed a return to one of my safe spaces, where both the routine and unexpected unfold every night.

By |2018-05-17T00:12:23-04:00September 16th, 2017|2017, Looking up!, Out of Africa|Comments Off on The Elephant, the Lion, and the Skies of the Karoo

Postcard from Mars – a SIMOC update: August 01, 2017

ECLSS by Wikipedia commons

ECLSS
An Environmental Control and Life Support System (ECLSS) enables humans to survive in a semi-open (Fig 1) completely closed (BioSphere II, Lunar Palace) ecosystem. In a traditional model, all components vital to sustaining life are tracked by a network of system monitors. Careful estimations are made for the quantity of humans in the given environment for a particular period of time, against the resources provided. The amount of work they perform, the food they consume, and the number of hours they sleep all affect the duration and quality of the mission (see Wikipedia commons image, above).

In this linear tabulation of resource allocation and consumption each human actor or agent is treated as an IN and OUT box, a system which transforms one resource of a particular quantity into a bi-product which is either reused or discarded as waste.

To use this model for a massively scalable system (4-40,000 people) will result in an arduous, ultimately failing bookkeeping effort of tracking values such as the quantity of molecules of oxygen, carbon dioxide, water, calories, Watts or Joules. Through this linear method, we will be less likely to discover causality. If instead we can build a model which considers the relationship between two or more systems, which are themselves maintained by a constant input of energy and mass flow against the natural progression toward system breakdown, then we will gain a better sense of what it means to scale a human colony in a totally foreign, inhospitable environment, from the first astronauts to arrive to a genetically viable human gene pool that can, of its own accord, carry the human species forward.

A rendezvous with Rama
In our imagination, humans in a distant future have gained the ability to travel vast distances in relatively short periods of time. An exploratory mission discovers a massive, abandoned space station in orbit about a planet which itself is not conducive to life as we know it. We attach a shuttle craft to the hull of the outpost, tens of kilometers in diameter, and let ourselves inside. There does not appear to be a single living creature inside. Nothing moves, not even automated repair and management systems.

Immediately, we ask, For how long has this outpost been abandoned?

To answer that question, we determine if the atmosphere is breathable for humans, and we remove our helmets. The air is dry, cold, and devoid of the smell of decay. There is an odor of machine oil and mechanical systems.
While completely sealed, and safely parked in a non-decaying orbit far above the drag of the atmosphere, this habitat is decaying. It is slowly degrading. No matter how well crafted, no matter how perfectly every nut, bolt, and weld is applied, eventually this artificial world will fall to pieces.

You can point to the systems which are no longer being maintained: water delivery, sewage removal, atmosphere recycling systems. The ship’s hull is continuously bombarded with radiation from the binary star system 1.5 AU from the orbit of the host planet. Each of these is breaking down due to a lack of maintenance.

As we explore the inner halls and chambers of this orbiting world we take note of the integrity of the structure. Are seals in tact? Are lubricants leaking? Do the doorways to passages open and close securely? Do motors yet spin and pistons yet pump? Or have all moving parts seized and become immobile?

While we tend to measure breakdown over time, we can also measure the disorganization of the structure, at the macroscopic and microscopic levels. Physical breakdown of a mechanical system can be described as a degree of current functionality in comparison to its original design parameters. In this alien outpost, despite the incredible technology employed, we do recognize the failure of some systems (once rebooted and encouraged to operate again), such that we are able to estimate their original function and design specification. The difference between full capacity and the current state is a ratio which can be described as a normalized function, from zero through one [0 … 1] where 1 is complete, working order and 0 is a seized, non-functioning machine, no longer providing the intended service, and thereby no longer supporting this habitat nor the inhabitants who once occupied it.

This breakdown, the unavoidable decline of all bounded systems can be described by the single variable entropy, or the measure of organization.

SIMOC sketch by Kai Staats

So let’s take a few steps back, to a time when the alien station was yet inhabited. We can safely assume that at that time there was a maintenance schedule, a system by which the entire structure was maintained through routine inspection, repair, and replacement. This could have been done by the macroscopic hands of the aliens (who appear to be of a similar stature to that of the human explorers), an automated array of robotic assistants, or by microscopic nanobots whose function is to maintain the integrity of all functional systems, at all times, such that no weaknesses ever develop, and no systems ever suffer from catastrophic failure.

Either way, there is a cost to this maintenance, the work (w), or energy expenditure and mass flow to maintain the function (f) of the habitat. Organization (o) of this work requires management of information (i). As such, we have defined a means by which we can measure the status of a closed ecosystem:

  1. Organization
  2. Information
  3. Work

Function, then, is a relationship between the Organization, Information, and Work attributed to the sustained management of the habitat, or its total functionality. While each of these could be measured in any of number methods, we will place each in a tightly bound relationship to entropy, such that entropy is the counterpart, the undoing of organization, information, work, and ultimately the function.

Now, we have a new means of monitoring the health of the physical parameters of an isolated habitat, as:

f = (o [operator] i [operator] w) / entropy

Where the ratio is a measure of the effort or energy required to ultimately maintain a self-contained ecosystem without ever having had to count the molecules of oxygen, water, or complex carbohydrates. In a newly built habitat, the entropy is low, therefore the maintenance is low as well. But as the habitat ages, or if catastrophe strikes, the entropy will be large, thereby requiring greater organization, information, and work to bring it back into compliance with sustaining human life.

We are relating the current state of the system to its design specification over the inevitable force of entropy.

Back to Mars
If we employ a normalized set of values, as discussed above, then the maths is quite simple, even as we scale this colony from 4 to 400 to 40,000 individual habitants. This is not to say we will not count molecules nor worry ourselves with the atmospheric pressure in the greenhouse, for our model is in fact based on data accumulated from close-ecosystem and bioregenerative experiments on Earth. But to find those non-linear functions of scalability, we must remove ourselves from the line-item bookkeeping which would otherwise overlook the economies of scale which will surely affect a growing colony.

The habitat itself is designed to sustain human life in an otherwise inhospitable environment. As such, we can model the human lives of the astronauts by making certain the habitat itself is functional. We have established a potential framework built upon four parameters which enable us, at any point in the run-time of our SIMOC model, determine the relatively “health” of the physical structure of the habitat.

Now, let’s turn our attention to the health of the human habitants for which the habitat was designed and built Like a structure which is built from concrete, steel, glass, and soil, humans are composed of building blocks. Water, oxygen, calories, protein, vitamins and minerals make up the fluid and solid systems of our bodies.
How do we bring such discreet elements into the SIMOC model without managing each and every molecule that supports the lives of the human inhabitants of the isolated colony? In much the same way as we did with the habitat, we can look at the construct of the human body, and what breaks down over time.

One can see the human body as an assembly of points of failure, critical systems which must be satisfied. Oxygen intake, carbon dioxide exhalation, water, calories, nutrition, and waste management are as mission critical to the human body as is a sealed, pressurized shell to a habitat.

If we see humans as the caretakers of the habitat, that is, the principal labor force responsible for its anti-entropic upkeep, and the habitat as the physical construct which enables the humans to survive in outer space, or on a remote planet, then we have created a positive feedback loop in which each unit supports the other.

What happens when automated or directed robot labor replaces the human maintenance engineer? The labor is shifted from one entity to another, but the total work required to maintain the habitat is sustained, and the total quantity of humans supported, given the immediate infrastructure is not changed. Rather, the caloric expenditure of each human in the habitat is shifted to other functions, and the economy of scale is realized.

By |2019-07-07T13:55:47-04:00August 1st, 2017|Looking up!, Ramblings of a Researcher|Comments Off on Postcard from Mars – a SIMOC update: August 01, 2017

Earth to Mars, A Journey for Us All

Science Cafe Cape Town
29 October 2015

Science Cafe Cape Town with Kai Staats Science Cafe Cape Town with Kai Staats

A week ago Thursday, October 29, I was honoured by the opportunity to speak to the Science Cafe Cape Town. Held at Truth Coffee, the Science Cafe offers “monthly meetups for anyone with a curiosity in science, a chance to chat with local experts about cutting-edge research in a relaxed setting.”

Indeed, the unique venue was ideal for an interactive conversation with an audience of more than one hundred. Following a brief introduction, I showed a short film produced while I was working as an embedded filmmaker and technician at the Mars Desert Research Station, Utah, in January 2014 with MarsCrew134. I then moved through two dozen slides in order to bring the audience into an awareness of the many organisations that are now working toward taking humans to Mars, the asteroids, and beyond. I introduced a few of the many technical and financial challenges, and offered topics for consideration, including “Why should we go to Mars?”

Science Cafe Cape Town with Kai Staats For me, as a speaker, it was a most enjoyable event. My thirty minutes presentation was followed by an hour of questions, which is most unusual and incredibly fun. Thanks to all who attended, for such being the most engaging audience I have ever enjoyed.

I opened the evening with full admission that I am a “jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none” and promised to let the audience know if I could not answer a question asked. This kind of presentation is new to me. Informal and wonderfully engaging, it was as much a conversation with new friends as it was a lecture. Yet in that informality, I was not as accurate with some of my answers as I would have liked to have been.

This past week I have conducted a series of fact-checks, to correct some of my answers and to build upon the subjects addressed. What’s more, Kerry Gordon, co-founder of the Science Cafe Cape Town granted me the opportunity to edit and clean the audio recording of my presentation. In so doing, I was able to remove the inaudible questions (too far from the microphone) and tighten a few of my answers in order to be more concise. The total recording is now just under one hour, including the short film.

 

In this follow-up research process, I have learned a great deal. I hope you will as well.

CAUTION! The proverbial rabbit hole runs deep. Myriad pathways unfold when investigating such a tremendous topic as space exploration. Dive in, but don’t expect to stop … until you walk on the face of Mars or build a future such that your children’s children may climb aboard a massive vessel bound for a neighbouring star.

RESOURCES

 

CORRECTIONS

  • I stated the distance from the Sun to the Earth was similar to the distance from the Earth to Jupiter, and again the same distance to Saturn. This was not correct. The distance from the Earth to Jupiter is nearly 5x that of the Sun to the Earth. But yes, the distance from the Sun to Jupiter is approximately the distance from Jupiter to Saturn. To continue, Uranus is 2x the distance from the Jupiter to Saturn at 20 AU; Neptune another 10 AU. —source
     
  • The average temperature on Venus is 460C (not 300C). —source
     
  • Voyager was launched in 1977 (not 1978) and became the first human-made object to enter interstellar space in 2012 (not “last year”). —source
     
  • Astronauts who live on the ISS for periods up to 6 months are required to exercise for approximately 2 hours per day (not 4.5). Even with rigorous exercise, astronauts have typically lost up to 0.4-1% of their bone density per month in space.—source
     
  • The longest continuous stay in space is on-board the Russian MIR for 437 days, not the International Space Station for which the longest run is 223 days.—source
     
  • It would take 73,000 years to travel to Proxima Centauri at the speed of Voyager I (17.3 km/s). This is approximately 2500 generations. At 100x this speed, we would need 25 (not 100) generations to arrive. —source
     

ADDITIONS & VALIDATIONS

  • Concerning the discussion of how we determine if a moon of another planet has a liquid water ocean, there are in fact 5 methods for such an observation and conclusion:
    1. dampening of the moon’s magnetic field through monitoring the auroras
    2. observation of geysers
    3. spectroscopy
    4. orbital wobble
    5. gravimetry

     
    The above expands upon my answer of spectroscopy and acceleration by the gravitational field (gravimetry). Further conversation with Stephen Potter, Head Astronomer at the South African Astronomical Observatory offers, “Visual size is a first rough guess. Orbital period and distance cannot give you the mass. You can put any mass at a specific period+distance. E.g. replace Earth with Jupiter and it will have the same period and distance. Moon masses can be refined by studying the deviations in their orbits as a result of their interactions with other moons. So this now becomes a more complicated N-body problem, which you refine with more longer term observations. e.g. JPL has one of the best solar system N-body simulations right now. Only once you get close with a flyby can you refine it further. I.e. your spacecraft becomes the test mass.”

  • Concerning construction materials on Mars, yes, silica and iron are prevalent, as stated, but it is also believed that magnesium, aluminum (aluminium for those who prefer the British spelling :), calcium, and potassium are abundant, as discovered through the sampling of soil on Mars, and inspection of meteorites which originate from Mars. —source
     
  • My reference to “not likely having calcium-based stone” for use as a construction material (cement) was in reference to limestone (calcium carbonate) which is formed primarily from the remains of marine life forms. Carbonates have been discovered on Mars using spectrometers on-board Spirit and the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which provides evidence for a warmer, wetter past. (source) But for there to be limestone as we have on Earth, there would have had to have been many hundred of millions of years of calcium-bearing marine lifeforms, which has not, to date, been determined.
     
  • To confirm the question of the young man to my left, yes, all planets are the same age as they were all formed from the same accretion disc orbiting our newly formed sun, between 4.4-4.6 billion years ago. —source
     
  • While I correctly differentiated electromagnetic radiation from particle radiation, I could have further discussed “ionizing” radiation as the type which causes harm to human tissue. (source). However, per the question by the woman sitting directly to my front, given my current understanding, it would require radioactive isotopes, not highly energetic particles (“cosmic rays”) to cause food used as a radiation barrier, to become poisonous to the astronauts who would consume it. This requires further investigation …

    “Cosmic rays are immensely high-energy radiation, mainly originating outside the Solar System. They may produce showers of secondary particles that penetrate and impact the Earth’s atmosphere and sometimes even reach the surface. Composed primarily of high-energy protons and atomic nuclei, they are of mysterious origin.”
     
    “The term ray is a historical accident, as cosmic rays were at first, and wrongly, thought to be mostly electromagnetic radiation. In common scientific usage high-energy particles with intrinsic mass are known as “cosmic” rays, and photons, which are quanta of electromagnetic radiation (and so have no intrinsic mass) are known by their common names, such as “gamma rays” or “X-rays”, depending on their origin.”
     
    “Galactic cosmic rays are one of the most important barriers standing in the way of plans for interplanetary travel by crewed spacecraft. Cosmic rays also pose a threat to electronics placed aboard outgoing probes. In 2010, a malfunction aboard the Voyager 2 space probe was credited to a single flipped bit, probably caused by a cosmic ray. Strategies such as physical or magnetic shielding for spacecraft have been considered in order to minimize the damage to electronics and human beings caused by cosmic rays.”—verbatim from source

  • I was correct in stating that Mars habitats will not have windows, at least not until we employ something like Star Trek’s transparent aluminum (which I learned is real!) as a shield to radiation. However, after the Q&A, a gentleman suggested that sunlight could be bounced into an otherwise radiation protected greenhouse (meaning, covered in soil). By selecting the coating on the mirror, you could determine what wavelength of light is reflected. However, if this is the case, then it would stand to reason that the human habitats would also have windows, even if tucked back, beneath an shielded roof. However, without a magnetic field and atmosphere 1/1000 the thickness of our own at sea level, the cosmic rays may yet penetrate the domicile through the window, even if travelling through the thickest part of the Martian atmosphere. This requires further investigation …
     
  • The risk of radiation exposure is not as bad as we had thought, for a long-term manned mission to Mars. Results from Curiosity rover suggest that a mission consisting of a 180-day journey to Mars, a 500-day stay, and a 180-day return flight to Earth would expose astronauts to a cumulative radiation dose of about 1.01 sieverts. For comparison, the European Space Agency limits its astronauts to a total career radiation dose of 1 sievert, which is associated with a 5% increase in lifetime fatal cancer risk.—source
     
  • Per the photograph of the “blueberries” on Mars, a concretion is a hard, compact mass formed through precipitation of mineral cement between particles. It is found in sedimentary rock and soil. This process can make the concretions harder and more resistant to weathering than the surrounding rock or soil.—source
     
  • Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) lost contact with Spirit after last hearing from the rover on March 22, 2010. Attempts were continued until May 25, 2011, bringing the total mission time to 6 years 2 months 19 days—25 times the original planned mission duration. —source
     
  • For the gentleman who after the Q&A asked about the formation of our Moon, I found this page by NASA’s Jen Heldmann. Yes, the current theory remains that of a large impact. The difference from prior theories is that the Moon formed not from a lump of molten rock thrown into orbit by the impact, but by the accumulation of vaporised material from both the proto-Earth and the massive (Mars sized) object with which it collided.
     
  • On the topic of nuking Mars, “Elon Musk details his plan to bomb Mars saying constant ‘nuclear pulse explosions’ would create double suns to heat the planet”. Read more …
     
  • On the topic of teleportation, this is incredibly complex and wonderfully engaging, far beyond Captain Kirk arriving to the transporter room in duplicate (while wonderfully entertaining). I provide just a few links to stimulate further reading:
By |2017-04-10T11:17:31-04:00October 29th, 2015|2015, Humans & Technology, Looking up!, Out of Africa|Comments Off on Earth to Mars, A Journey for Us All

The Waters of Mars

water on Mars by NASA

(photo courtesy of NASA)

The race for space began with fear that one of our kind might leave home before the other and gain a military advantage. It was not an expedition but a political decision to fuel the Saturn V rockets that carried our species further than ever before.

Four decades later, we have advanced our technology such that each of us carries in our pockets more computational power than all of NASA at the time of the Apollo program, yet we remain grounded, the International Space Station the only reminder of a time when we believed we would inherit the stars.

In my lifetime, humans have walked on the moon and orbited the Earth countless thousands of times. But I must ask without confidence, Will I live to see humans walk on the surface of the Moon again? Will we lay hammer to the rocky surface of an asteroid or sample the flowing waters on Mars?

With the British Interplanetary Society, Icarus Interstellar, and the Initiative for Interstellar Studies thought leaders are helping to put words to thought, and designs to words. The Planetary Society continues to lead with real spacecraft moving into interplanetary trajectories, even into interstellar space.

With NASA’s bold declaration of water on the surface of Mars, perhaps, finally, the dead centre will be shifted to an edge over which politicians without the power of imagination but with the power of economic control will be forced to follow.

Maybe then we will be made aware not of what makes us different, but what unites us under a common goal.

Exploration. Discovery. The unknown.

By |2015-10-06T23:11:40-04:00September 29th, 2015|Looking up!|Comments Off on The Waters of Mars

When the Moon Turns Red

Lunar Eclipse 2015 by Kai Staats
Lunar Eclipse 2015 by Kai Staats Lunar Eclipse 2015 by Kai Staats

The photographs were obtained between 3:15 and 4:20 am, in Muizenberg, Cape Town, South Africa. The cloud cover came and went, at times totally blocking the view. Unfortunately, as the Moon neared totality, the mist was heavy (thus the soft image). The final shot of the Moon resting on the adjacent building was only seconds after the clouds dissipated one last time. Totality was missed from this vantage point, but the total experience was mesmerising.

Canon 60D
Nikor 80-200mm lens (circa 1980) with Nikon/Canon adapter
ISO: 400 – 1000
Exposure: 1/200 – 2 seconds

By |2017-04-10T11:17:32-04:00September 28th, 2015|2015, Looking up!, Out of Africa|Comments Off on When the Moon Turns Red

A Night Beneath the Stars

Kai Staats: south pole from Sutherland Kai Staats: 20" telescope at Sutherland

Last night I sat alone, on the flattop remnant of an ancient volcanic intrusion, it’s hardened crust resisting erosion moreso than the surrounding terrain. This is where the telescopes reside, spaceships that travel millions of light years but never leave the launching pad.

I sat on a folded blanket, three layers on top, two on the bottom. The air was perfectly still, the sky dark overhead. I read the latest novel by sci-fi master Ben Bova while pressing the shutter on my camera, via remote, over 200 times. Each exposure was 20 seconds long, capturing the SALT observatory silhouetted against the centre of the galaxy.

Satisfied I had captured enough for a timelapse animation, I repacked my camera, book, water, nuts, and blanket and walked along the paved road to the observatory which houses the 20″ telescope on which I have been training. Pierre was conducting his observation run, and doing research into which objects we might photograph the following night.

The moon was rising when I departed, visiting the two astronomers in the 1.9m observatory. Danika, a Ph.D. student from Serbia training under her professor from Australia.

I had left my camera running, a long exposure at low ISO to capture star trails behind the SALT observatory.

Ever time I step into an observatory dome, I am overcome with a sense of childhood thrill, the kind that Jae and I likely shared when we built a fort in our shared bedroom, made of card tables and blankets and flash lights, or when as a child I first visited NASA JPL and saw the Galileo spacecraft under construction.

For me, the observatory has this kind of mind-expanding capacity, for it reaches to the night sky and receives photons from distant galaxies each with billions of stars, massive explosions closer to home, and of the stuff that gives foundation to the formation of planets which may be home to inquisitive creatures looking back at us.

The telescopes are tremendous achievements of engineering and design. There is an incredible sense of accomplishment when you one move, a 3-story, multi-ton creature of iron, steel, and glass as graceful as a dancer; as accurate as a laser.

Like astronauts, the astronomers reside in a small, cramped quarters monitoring the light received by the telescope just outside. Following each observation, one rises, slips through the door which isolates the telescope from their heat and light, to adjust the direction the instrument is pointing.

Returning to their seat, warm cup of tea or coffee or hot chocolate, the music, conversation, and observation resume.

Night after night, week after week, across the planet, thousands of individuals dedicate their sleepless hours to gathering data which helps us better understand our world.

By |2017-04-10T11:17:35-04:00September 20th, 2014|2014, Looking up!, Out of Africa|Comments Off on A Night Beneath the Stars