Saturday, November 22, 2014

The Rosetta Probe: The Little Spacecraft That Could?

Launched from earth over a decade ago to rendezvous with a comet more than half a billion miles away from earth, is the Rosetta Probe the little robotic spacecraft that could? 

By: Ringo Bones 

When it was launched off the Arianne spaceport in French Guiana back in March 2, 2004, the European Space Agency’s Rosetta Probe with a mission to rendezvous with a comet more 10 years later could for all intents and purposes pass muster as a mission to the unknown. The craft was placed in a decade long hibernation once it escaped the bonds of earth’s gravity and was reactivated earlier this year. It gained headline news status and attention of the major news networks when it successfully caught up to and orbited around Comet 67P during the middle of November 2014. Although once it – more or less – successfully landed the Philae Lander on the surface of Comet 67P -  also known as Comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko - back in November 15, 2014 did the Rosetta Space Probe became the little spacecraft that could?

The major unavoidable hazard of launching space-probes on long-duration space missions is that when they arrive at their destinations, they will inevitably be using what was the state-of-the-art technology at the time of their launch date. The Rosetta Probe’s 4-megapixel Osiris camera – although very state-of-the-art back when it was designed and built back in 2003 – is somewhat quaint by comparison to the built in cameras used on entry level mobile smart-phone cameras circa 2014, except the Rosetta Probe’s mere 4-megapixel camera – though lacking in resolution in comparison to contemporary consumer counterparts – can see portions of the electromagnetic spectrum that the latest i-Phone can’t with quantum efficiencies better than Ronald Reagan era Keyhole reconnaissance satellites. 

Although it was the Philae Lander that eventually became the star of the show when it successfully landed on the surface of Comet 67P despite a “shaky” bouncy landing due to the failure of deployment of the beryllium-copper harpoons supposedly used to anchor the Lander on the surface of the comet because the gravitational pull on the surface of Comet 67P is 100,000 times less than that on the earth’s surface. The washing machine sized Philae Lander – which weighs 100-kilograms on the earth’s surface – only weighs 1 gram on the surface of Comet 67P thus the necessity of the beryllium-copper harpoons needed to anchor the Lander firmly on the comet’s surface. 

Even though Professor Derrick Pitts – chief astronomer of the Franklin Institute – was concerned when the Philae Lander bounced off into a dark part / shadowy cliff of the surface of the Comet 67P which it can’t use its solar photovoltaic panels to power its instruments in analyzing the composition of the comet, the Lander had enough juice in its on-board reserve batteries to do a series of scientific analysis of the comet and sent the valuable data back to earth before losing power and reverting to sleep mode. Preliminary analysis of the data sent by the Philae Lander has shown that it has detected a wealth of organic compounds on the comet’s surface near the landing zone. It is also worth noting that the distance between Comet67P / Comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko, the radio signals from the Philae Lander - even when moving at 186,000 miles per second or 300,000 kilometers per second - takes almost an hour to arrive to satellite telemetry sites tuned in to the Philae Lander here on earth.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Virgin Galactic SpaceShip Two Crash: A Blow To Space Tourism?

Even though it is still beyond the reach of the average working class consumers, does the recent crash of the Virgin Galactic SpaceShip Two represent a blow to “affordable” space tourism?

By: Ringo Bones 

It was supposedly a routine test flight aimed to make space tourism closer to the masses but in ended in tragedy when in October 31, 2014 a Virgin Galactic SpaceShip Two space tourism craft suffered a catastrophic failure after it separated from its mother ship White Knight Two and crashed moments later into the Mojave Desert below. Even though the crash is under further investigation to determine the cause of the tragedy according to Stuart Witt CEO of Mojave Spaceport, witnesses on the ground says that the craft appeared to be in pieces before it crashed to the floor of the Mojave Desert. One pilot was killed while the co-pilot is seriously injured. Virgin CEO Sir Richard Branson flew immediately to the crash site as soon as he heard the tragic news. Will the recent disaster represent a giant step back to “affordable” space tourism? 

Compared to the US government run NASA, private space travel and space tourism companies like Virgin with its Virgin Galactic space tourism program seems to be able to make viable space travel programs at a far lesser cost than government run counterparts. SpaceShip Two costs “only” 500 million US dollars to develop – a bargain compared to comparable spending made by similar NASA projects. While the Spaceship Two is slated to bring the first batch of space tourist to their “suborbital” destinations by 2015, there are 700 customers who already paid the ticket price of 250,000 US dollars already lining up for the experience including celebrities like Hollywood actor Tom Hanks and song-and-dance man Justin Beiber and also Lady Gaga and Katy Perry . 

By their very nature, our current spacecraft technology is inherently dangerous in their operation because they operate under the extremes of temperature and pressure. Like cryogenic fuels and oxidizers only tens of degrees above absolute zero fueling a rocket engine that runs at a temperature hot enough to vaporize steel. Not to mention reentry temperatures comparable to that of free-flowing magma.