Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Space Shuttle Discovery Leaves Launch Pad! Possible Asteroid Strike in 2036?

Space Shuttle Discovery Leaves Launch Pad!

Well, space shuttle Discovery finally left the launch pad earlier today. This is important stuff, so I placed the entire text of the Channel 4 News story below, with the site link at the end. Enjoy.

You could almost hear the sighs of relief at NASA's space centre today - as the space shuttle Discovery successfully blasted off from its launch pad at Cape Canaveral in Florida.

It was NASA's second attempt this month to launch the shuttle - after problems with hydrogen fuel sensors forced the space agency to abandon the original launch almost two weeks ago. Its America's first shuttle mission since Columbia broke up in 2003. But despite its success, there are doubts about President Bush's commitment to the shuttle's future - as our Science Correspondent, Julian Rush reports.

Watching and waiting at Cape Canaveral, America's First Lady, Laura Bush, with families of the astronauts who died aboard Columbia. There is a new realism at NASA: officially the risk of another disaster is one in a hundred - but in the end it was flawless. The sense of relief: almost palpable. NASA had decided to fly even though the problem that caused the launch to be aborted two weeks ago hadn't been solved. Recovery from the Columbia disaster has been painful but today, it seems the memories were exorcised.

The first woman to command a shuttle mission, Eileen Collins and her crew - five Americans, an Australian and a Japanese - will spend 12 days in space, testing NASA's modifications to the shuttle and ferrying supplies to the International Space Station.

NASA has spent more than a billion dollars on measures to reduce the risk of foam or ice falling off during take-off - and on management changes designed to repair what investigators called its "broken safety culture". Even so, NASA took a gamble today: risking flight without a solution to the problem that had delayed the launch: the low fuel level sensors at the base of the giant external fuel tank. NASA engineers were only able to correct three minor electrical issues with equipment that feeds data to the troublesome sensors.

President Bush's vision of a new direction for NASA focused on manned missions to the Moon and Mars may play well at home. But the vision has left America's international partners in the Space Station angry and frustrated. The White House wants to cut the number of shuttle flights to 15 and retire the remaining three orbiters by 2010.

A leaked memo saying the Administration doesn't accept the 28 flights necessary to finish building the space station. The European Space Agency is now not certain if its Columbus science module will ever get off the ground. None will say so publicly, privately they talk of America hijacking the space station, abandoning science for a gung-ho vision designed to boost the flagging ratings of the President. In the last few minutes, at mission control, the spectre of Columbia re-appeared. Debris is reported to have fallen off the shuttle during launch: An image from the tank camera showing what looks like an object falling away just after the right booster separated. As Discovery circles the Earth, NASA knows debris need not be fatal, but it is an awful echo they had been desperate not to hear.

Story link: http://www.channel4.com/news/special-reports/special-reports-storypage.jsp?id=423

This event has the potential to have a huge impact for everyone in that we must re-establish a reliable and robust space program. Forget what President Brain-Dead says about his "grand vision" about getting back to the Moon and putting men on Mars, it's all bullshit. Proof of that lies in the first sentence of the last paragraph. What kind of ninny wants to send men to Mars, but doesn't want to send 28 shuttle flights to complete work on the ISS?

What is important is that this flight, and future flights, be successful, and that we start to get serious about placing several space stations in orbit as a jump-off point to the Moon and the rest of the Solar System. Why you ask? Read the next story...

Possible Asteroid Strike in 2036?

This is something I caught on the radio on my drive home from my wage-slavery containment center. I got home and immediately went to the Sky and Telescope web site, but no mention of any possible asteroid strikes were available. I then searched Google News and found following story, taken in its entirety from, of all places, the Christian Science Monitor News web site. No shit!

Anyway, read on and see if it might be worth investing a few more Greenspans on the Final Frontier, vis-a-vis getting all our eggs out of this one basket we call Earth.

Humans live in a vast solar system where 2,000 feet seems a razor-thin distance. Yet it's just wide enough to trigger concerns that an asteroid due to buzz Earth on April 13, 2029 may shift its orbit enough to return and strike the planet seven years later.

The concern: Within the object's range of possible fly-by distances lie a handful of gravitational "sweet spots," areas some 2,000 feet across that are also known as keyholes. The physics may sound complex, but the potential ramifications are plain enough. If the asteroid passes through the most probable keyhole, its new orbit would send it slamming into Earth in 2036. It's unclear to some experts whether ground-based observatories alone will be able to provide enough accurate information in time to mount a mission to divert the asteroid, if that becomes necessary.

So NASA researchers have begun considering whether the US needs to tag the asteroid, known as 99942 Apophis, with a radio beacon before 2013. Timing is everything, astronomers say. If officials attempt to divert the asteroid before 2029, they need to nudge the space rock's position by roughly half a mile - something well within the range of existing technology. After 2029, they would need to shove the asteroid by a distance as least as large as Earth's diameter. That feat would tax humanity's current capabilities.

NASA's review of the issue was triggered by a letter from the B612 Foundation. The foundation's handful of specialists hope to demonstrate controlled asteroid-diversion techniques by 2015.

Last Wednesday, representatives from the foundation met with colleagues at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) to review the issue. The foundation's letter marks the first time specialists in the asteroid-hazard field have called for a scouting mission to assess such a threat.

"We understand the risk from this object, and while it's small, it's not zero," says David Morrison, the senior scientist at NASA's Astrobiology Institute at the Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, Calif.

The call for a reconnaissance mission also illustrates how far the field of asteroid-hazard assessment has come.
"Ten years ago, we would have been blissfully ignorant," says Donald Yeomans, who heads NASA's near-Earth object project at JPL. Today, at least five programs worldwide are hunting down near-Earth objects. NASA is well on its way toward achieving its goal of cataloging 90 percent of the near-Earth objects larger than 0.6 miles across by 2008. And it is devising ways to ensure that information about potential hazards reaches top decisionmakers throughout the government.

Based on available data, astronomers give Apophis - a 1,000-foot wide chunk of space debris - a 1-in-15,000 chance of a 2036 strike. Yet if the asteroid hits, they add, damage to infrastructure alone could exceed $400 billion. When the possibility of the asteroid passing through two other keyholes is taken into account, the combined chance of the asteroid hitting the planet shifts to 1 in 10,000, notes Clark Chapman, a senior scientist with the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colo.

"A frequent flier probably would not want to board an airliner if there's a 1-in-10,000 chance it's going to crash," he says. The asteroid in question was discovered last June. Initially, it looked as though it might strike Earth in 2029. But additional observations eliminated that possibility. Instead the asteroid will come within 22,600 miles of Earth - just inside the altitude where major communications satellites orbit. The asteroid will be visible to the naked eye in the night skies over Europe and western Africa, where it will appear a bit dimmer than the North Star. But this estimated distance carries an uncertainty that spans several thousand miles either side of its expected path - a region of space that includes three gravitational keyholes.

JPL's analysis will look at several factors. One involves estimating whether additional ground observations will be sufficient to resolve the question of whether the asteroid will pass through one of the keyholes. The asteroid belongs to a class known as Atens, which orbit the sun in less than a year and pass through Earth's orbit. Because Atens spend so much of their time in the direction of the Sun, observations from Earth are difficult. After next year, the next opportunity to gather data on the asteroid from the ground will come in 2012-2013.

In addition, questions remain over how long a tagging mission - and if necessary a deflection mission - would take to plan and execute. If missions can be mounted in six years or less, NASA could postpone a decision to tag the asteroid until 2014. This would give astronomers time to incorporate their latest observations as they refine calculations of Apophis's orbit. But if a tagging mission took seven to eight years and a diversion mission took another 12 years, the case grows for launching the tagging mission sooner rather than later.

Dr. Yeomans, the head of the near-Earth-object program at JPL, says the next step is to examine whether additional ground-based observations are likely to solve the collision riddle in a timely fashion. "I can't stress this enough: The overwhelming most-likely scenario is that radar and optical data this year and next or in 2012 and 2013 will completely remove the impact probabilities," he says. "If this is the case, why are we worried now? If it's a 1-in-15,000 shot and we come up a loser," there's still time to mount a tagging and a deflection mission, he says.

Story link: http://www.csmonitor.com/2005/0726/p01s04-stss.html

I know what some folks will say to this story. "Didn't we hear something like this last year?" or "Why do we have to worry about something that isn't going to happen for 30, 40 or 50 years?"

Answers: Yes, mainly because thanks to people like David Levy, Helen Shoemaker and her late husband Gene, the possibility of asteroid or comet strikes has begun to be analyzed with many small organizations performing countless observations and calculations of these objects that cross the Earth's orbital plane. It's not Chicken Little paranoia, it is just that we now possess the technology to identify this threat. The larger question is, are we going to be too cheap to do something about it?

And just because something isn't due to occur next Tuesday after lunch, doesn't mean we shouldn't get off of our collective arses to do something about it. Or is the next generation's survival and prosperity not in everyone's best interests?

I've ranted about this before, but there is no reason that more than 35 years after Apollo 11 landed the first men on the Moon that we should be limping along with this sorry excuse for a space program. Decades of neglect and apathy have placed humanity in a potentially dangerous situation in which we face possible extinction.

We do not have to go the way of the dinosaurs. We have telescopes. We have the technology and brain power to resurrect our space program to do two things to ensure our survival. Those things are, one, to be able to rendezvous with these objects, in much the same way we did with the Deep Impact comet probe on July 4th, and two, to be able to place people in orbiting space stations, and on bases on the Moon and Mars. The ball is in our court now.

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