Showing posts with label space research. Show all posts
Showing posts with label space research. Show all posts

Friday, October 4, 2013

Animals in space

For this poor little frog, the journey to space and back didn't last more than a few seconds, and I would imagine that his return to Earth (without a parachute) was hectic, if not tragic.

Click to enlarge

During his all-too-short excursion, I would imagine however that he must have had a fabulous view of the rocket (what a pity, though, that he was on the outside looking in, rather than the other way round), and he was surely saying to himself constantly: "So far, so good."

The first space martyr was the Soviet dog Laïka, who died a few hours after leaving Earth on 3 November 1957 in a Sputnik vessel.


In fact, three animals—a sheep, a duck and a rooster—had already participated in the first balloon flight in history, 230 years ago.


The birds appear to be enjoying themselves. Here's a translation of the caption:
 Aerostatic experiment carried out at Versailles on 19 September 1783 in the presence of Their Majesties and of the Royal Family by Monsieur de Montgolfier with a balloon of a height of 52 feet and a diameter of 41 feet. This superb device, bearing the King's signature on a blue background, weighed 900 pounds. The balloon's ascent was accompanied by applause from all the spectators. Then it came back down at the Marechal Carrefour in the Vaucresson woods.
Click here to access a web page describing this momentous event.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Quest for new worlds

It's never too early to start looking around for new worlds that might be colonized, one day, by our human descendants. Incidentally, it's becoming more and more likely that many of these descendants, in the not-too-far-distant future, will be quite different creatures to us, since their genomes will no doubt contain various synthetic genes inherited from top-class intelligent robots. There's no sound reason—other than old-fashioned nostalgia—for hanging around here longer than necessary on the charming planet Earth, with its depleted resources and damaged ecosystems. Adventurous human societies should be able to take advantage of their Earth-based history and experience in order to go about things in a better fashion at other spots in the universe.

We first have to find new worlds, and then our descendants will have to invent some way of reaching them. Theoretically, neither of these two challenges would appear to be insurmountable... though I don't have the least idea of what the solutions might look like. When our descendants get around to finding solutions to the above-mentioned challenges, they'll surely be amazed to think that we old-timers of the start of the 21st century were incapable of envisaging such answers.

Astronomers in search of new worlds evoke the celebrated children's story of Goldilocks and the three bears, by the English romantic poet Robert Southey [1774-1843].


The Goldilocks metaphor is a little like the Down Under joke at the end of one of my recent blog posts [display]. In the empty house of the three bears, in the middle of the woods, the little girl comes upon three bowls of porridge, apparently ready to be eaten. Feeling hungry, she tastes the porridge in Father Bear's big bowl, but it's too hot. Then she tries the porridge in Mother Bear's bowl, but it's too cold. Finally, in Baby Bear's little bowl, Goldilocks finds that the temperature of the porridge is "just right", so she gulps it all down. In the case of planets orbiting around a star, there is sometimes an orbital zone whose temperature, like that of the planet Earth, is apparently "just right" for human existence.

Last week, astronomers were thrilled to announce that NASA's Kepler spacecraft had discovered a pair of so-called exoplanets orbiting within the Goldilocks zone of a star that is henceforth named Kepler 62, located in the constellation Lyra, at a distance of 1,200 light-years from our solar system. Here's an artist's impression of a "sunrise" in the vicinity of one of these planets:


The chief of the Kepler project, William Borucki, claims that this pair of exoplanets is the most favorable site for life that has ever been detected by the Kepler spacecraft since its launch by NASA in March 2009. Click here to visit the Wikipedia page on this project.

Meanwhile, plans are already under way for NASA's next-generation spacecraft designed to look for new worlds. Called the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), and designed by teams at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) headed by George Ricker, the new vessel will be launched in 2017. Here's an artist's impression of the TESS spacecraft:


The hundreds of small exoplanets discovered by Kepler have all been linked to stars whose great distance means that they're faint. TESS, on the other hand, will examine bright stars in a much larger area of the heavens. So, there's a good chance that this new spacecraft will be able to find new worlds for our descendants.

One might imagine a latter-day Columbus setting out towards obscure shorelines. The TESS adventure reminds me rather of future oak forests planted by conscientious landowners who know full well that neither they nor even their immediate offspring will ever sit in the shade of those great trees.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Elevator into the heavens

An article in this morning's Australian press made the unexpected suggestion that my native country should get involved in some kind of space program. It goes without saying that I like this idea, but I don't necessarily find it very realistic. It's a bit like saying that Australia should get involved in nuclear energy research. A more plausible down-to-earth goal would consist of simply updating the nation's antiquated infrastructure of railways, roads and bridges. Be that as it may, I was intrigued above all by the particular space project that was mentioned in the article. It was suggested that the waters off Western Australia might be a fine place for... an elevator into the heavens!

The principle of such a magical device was enunciated for the first time, many years ago, by a Russian rocket scientist named Konstantin Tsiolkovsky [1857–1935], who lived in the countryside in a log house. The general theory behind such an elevator is quite sound. You merely need to attach a strong elevator cable to a geostationary satellite. But an obvious practical problem has made it impossible, up until now, to envisage the actual construction of such a Jacob's ladder into the sky. The problem is the huge weight of the elevator cable, 62 thousand miles long! If it were built of steel, say, it would snap immediately under its own weight.
[Click here to see the Wikipedia page on this subject.]

The good news is that recent advances in nanotechnology make it possible to envisage the existence of an ultra-thin, ultra-lightweight and ultra-strong ribbon that would theoretically be able to perform perfectly as an elevator cable. What I don't know is whether Australia is technologically advanced enough to be able to work in this domain, and tackle such a project. The following short American video presents this kind of space elevator:

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Falling faster than sound

Around noon on Monday [French time], a few hours after the successful landing of Nasa's Phoenix vessel on the surface of the planet Mars, a 64-year-old French parachutist named Michel Fournier will be ascending in the Canadian skies for two and a half hours by means of a giant helium-inflated balloon. Then, at an altitude of 40 kilometers, he will be detaching his nacelle. Finally, he will be falling to Earth for over seven minutes at speeds in excess of the velocity of sound.

Fournier is no newcomer to parachuting, having made some 8,600 jumps. He has been planning this high-altitude tentative for years, and training intensively for the exploit in the style of an astronaut.

If he succeeds in his exploit, Michel Fournier will gain no less than four world records: (1) altitude of balloon ascension, (2) altitude of parachute jump, (3) speed in free fall and (4) duration of free fall.

BREAKING NEWS: The website for the Big Jump [visit] indicates that weather conditions have enforced a 24-hour postponement of operations. So, rendezvous Tuesday morning in Canada.

Has life existed on Mars?

Ever since the 19th century, people have speculated seriously about the possibility that living organisms might have come into existence on the red planet. Tonight, like hosts of observers throughout the world, I shall be waiting anxiously to learn if Nasa's Phoenix lander has arrived safely on our neighboring planet, and deployed correctly its rich assortment of scientific equipment.

There are now several excellent videos describing the Mars rovers named Spirit and Opportunity, which landed respectively on 4 and 24 January 2004. The following video uses synthetic images to indicate what should happen tonight if everything goes fine for Phoenix:



The cosmologist Giordano Bruno was convinced that life existed beyond the planet Earth:

For no reasonable mind can assume that heavenly bodies that may be far more magnificent than ours would not bear upon them creatures similar or even superior to those upon our human Earth.

For expressing thoughts of this kind, the Inquisition accused Bruno of heresy, and he was burnt at the stake in Rome, thereby becoming the world's first martyr for science.

These days, people have ceased imagining that Mars might be populated by little green creatures who built canals. We have few ideas on the nature of self-replicating organisms that might exist elsewhere in the universe. Even the great Charles Darwin [1809-1882] may have been wrong when he suggested that life probably started, here on Earth, in a "warm little pond ". For all we know, life might be able to spring into existence in a volcano, or deep inside clouds of gas. But the presence of liquid water would appear to be conducive to the development of primitive forms of life in a context of carbon-based chemistry, as on Earth. The Phoenix laboratory might be able to inform us if this was, or is, the case on Mars.

Friday, April 4, 2008

European vessel in space

Yesterday's docking of the European space cargo Jules Verne with the ISS [International Space Station], 200 miles above the Atlantic Ocean, performed solely by artificial intelligence, was amazing.

The vessel was launched on March 9 from the Kourou spaceport in French Guinea by an Ariane rocket, and yesterday's automatic docking maneuvers were monitored from Toulouse in southwestern France. In my article of 8 February 2008 entitled Europe in space [display], I described the incorporation in the ISS of Europe’s Columbus science laboratory. The success of the safe arrival of the Jules Verne cargo vessel enhances considerably the presence of Europe in the context of the ISS, which had been largely an American and Russian affair for a long time.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Europe in space

It was great to learn that the Atlantis shuttle was finally launched successfully yesterday from Cape Canaveral in Florida. Aboard, there's the European-built laboratory named Columbus, which weighed in at 12.8 tons: a lot of excess baggage! The laboratory will be operated by the European Space Agency [website].

The French astronaut Léopold Eyharts will be staying up in the sky for a while to install Columbus at the ISS [International Space Station]. There's also a German astronaut in the crew. The arrival in space of this laboratory, 7 meters in length, will be a momentous event for European research. The ESA director general, Jean-Jacques Dordain, declared: “When the hatch is opened and the astronauts enter Columbus to switch on and commission its science payloads, this will be a great day for Europe, and I see this day coming very soon now.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Grounded

Back in February 2007, I already wrote two posts about "astro-nut" Lisa Nowak, who allegedly attacked a romantic rival: Astronaughty female [display] and Trying to be serious about Lisa/Nasa [display].

In a Florida courthouse last Friday, Nowak apologized publicly to her victim. Then she begged with the judge to obtain the privilege of removing her electronic ankle bracelet, claiming that it hurts her ankle and interferes with her military boots. Besides, she said, this device is rented to her at an exorbitant fee, meaning that it cuts into, not only her boots, but her budget. Poor lady.

I know it's incorrect to judge people by their facial appearance. But I don't think I would feel at ease if I happened to be a former enemy of a determined Lisa Nowak, and I learned that she had been let loose.

Once again, this courtroom appearance has regenerated discussions on the fascinating question of whether or not the motorist Nowak, when she was crossing America in pursuit of her rival, was wearing diapers so that she wouldn't need to stop for a pee. And if she were, then exactly what kind of diapers did she use? Baby stuff, civilian adult products, or special astronaut equipment? As you can see, the questions surrounding this space-woman are quite down to earth. To hell with the heavens.