December 30, 2009

Move over, Hollywood, it's Russia's turn to blow up an asteroid.

The nerd in me gets all giggly and happy at the thought of someone actually talking about sending a mission to an asteroid to knock it off course so it doesn't hit earth.  The bigger nerd in me can't figure out why, when the calculated odds of the asteroid actually impacting earth are 1 in 250,000, a country would spend what will likely amount to billions of dollars on trying to deflect said asteroid from its path.  The even bigger nerd in me is up in arms that it's a Russian idea and not an idea from NASA.  (Of course, the pragmatist in me that doesn't want to waste NASA funding on a 1 in 250,000 chance is glad it's not NASA.)

So many conflicted inner nerds.  I don't know what to do.

In October, NASA lowered the odds that Apophis could hit Earth in 2036 from a 1-in-45,000 as earlier thought to a 1-in-250,000 chance after researchers recalculated the asteroid's path. It said another close encounter in 2068 will involve a 1-in-330,000 chance of impact.

Without mentioning NASA findings, Perminov said that he heard from a scientist that Apophis is getting closer and may hit the planet. "I don't remember exactly, but it seems to me it could hit the Earth by 2032," Perminov said.

"People's lives are at stake. We should pay several hundred million dollars and build a system that would allow to prevent a collision, rather than sit and wait for it to happen and kill hundreds of thousands of people," Perminov said.

Scientists have long theorized about asteroid deflection strategies. Some have proposed sending a probe to circle around a dangerous asteroid to gradually change its trajectory. Others suggested sending a spacecraft to collide with the asteroid and alter its momentum, or using nuclear weapons to hit it.

Perminov wouldn't disclose any details of the project, saying they still need to be worked out. But he said the mission wouldn't require any nuclear explosions.

Hollywood action films "Deep Impact" and "Armageddon," have featured space missions scrambling to avoid catastrophic collisions. In both movies space crews use nuclear bombs in an attempt to prevent collisions.

"Calculations show that it's possible to create a special purpose spacecraft within the time we have, which would help avoid the collision without destroying it (the asteroid) and without detonating any nuclear charges," Perminov said. "The threat of collision can be averted."

Boris Shustov, the director of the Institute of Astronomy under the Russian Academy of Sciences, hailed Perminov's statement as a signal that officials had come to recognize the danger posed by asteroids.

"Apophis is just a symbolic example, there are many other dangerous objects we know little about," he said, according to RIA Novosti news agency.

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December 27, 2009

Another airplane that didn't get blown up ...

I thought, with all this talk of mean Nigerians trying to blow up perfectly good airplanes with firecrackers, a news story about somebody not trying to blow up airplanes with firecrackers would be appreciated.  You're welcome.

In the world of competitive paper airplane throwing [there's such a thing as a "world of competitive paper airplane throwing"? -ed.], a 20-second flight is exceptional, 25 or better is world class.

Thirty is the stuff dreams are made of.

Only one man — Japanese paper airplane virtuoso Takuo Toda — has ever come close to breaking the 30-second barrier. On Sunday, he set a world record for a hand-launched plane made with only paper, but fell just short of the 30-second mark.

Toda, flying a 10-centimeter-long craft of his own design, made 10 attempts to break his own record of 27.9 seconds set earlier this year in Hiroshima but failed to best his previous mark, settling for a 26.1-second flight.

That was still the best ever recorded for a strictly paper-only craft. His 27.9 record was set with a plane that had tape on it.


Toda, an engineer, is the head of the Japan Origami Airplane Association and is virtually unmatched in his ability to fold paper aircraft.

In keeping with traditional rules of the ancient Japanese art of origami, he uses only one sheet of paper, which he does not cut or paste.

He flew two variations of his world record-setting paper airplane Sunday — the one he used to set the duration record in April and an updated version with a fin. His April mark was recognized by Guinness World Records.

He did not use tape Sunday, which is allowed by Guinness. He chose to forgo tape because he wanted to follow traditional origami rules. His 26.1 mark was the best ever for a plane without cellophane tape keeping it together. Toda had that previous best as well, just over 24 seconds.

"I will get the 30-second record," he said. "It's just a matter of time."

Toda said that the secret to throwing a paper airplane is to aim upward — not straight — so that it has time to gain altitude and slowly circle back to the ground. Toda appeared to be on his way to a record Sunday, but his second and best throw was ruled a foul because it hit a passenger jetliner parked nearby [I'm not even sure how that happens; why are they throwing paper airplanes on a tarmack? -ed.].

"It's really a sport," he said. "The throwing technique is very delicate."

Along with breaking the 30-second barrier, Toda said his next goal was to launch a paper airplane from space. With funding from Japan's space agency, JAXA, Toda and a team of scientists have designed a plane they believe can withstand the intense heat of re-entry.

One of Toda's designs was scheduled to be released from the International Space Station this year, but that plan fell through in part because of problems with devising a means of tracking the planes as they fell back to Earth.

Toda and his colleagues are currently trying to interest Chinese or Russian space officials in reviving the idea.

We let Russia beat us into space.  We cannot let them beat us in the throwing-paper-airplanes-out-of-a-multi-billion-dollar-space-craft race.  Something should be done about this!

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December 19, 2009

To Saturn ... and beyond!

Saturn's most famous moon, Titan, may be getting a visit from earth in the semi-near future.  In case you're unaware, Titan is cool because it has a lot of things that earth has - liquid lakes and seas, a weather system complete with rain and wind.  Of all the places in our solar system, Titan is the most similar to earth in many respects.  Now, of course, since Titan is orbiting Saturn, it is far from being in the Goldilocks zone, and is very, very cold, so it doesn't rain water and its seas aren't made of water. 

We could still learn all kinds of cool things from Titan.  If, for example, we learn that weather patterns behave similarily on Titan, we can use that data here on earth.  The group proposing this most recent trip would also use the trip to test a new type of power that is supposedly more efficient than the power they currently use on space exploration.

The other great thing about this trip?  By NASA standards, it would be dirt cheap.

Scientists got a few brief hours worth of data back from Titan's land surface in 2005 when the Huygens probe touched down in an equatorial region of the moon.

Now a number of those same researchers are desperate to go back for a longer-lived stay, but to investigate this time the huge pools that contain methane, ethane, propane and probably many other types of hydrocarbon (carbon-rich) compounds.

The Titan Mare Explorer (TiME) has already been under study for about two years. It is envisaged as a relatively low-cost endeavour - in the low $400m range.

It could launch in January 2016, and make some flybys of Earth and Jupiter to pick up the gravitational energy it would need to head straight at the Saturnian moon for a splash down in June 2023.

Of course, Big O's administration hasn't appeared to be very friendly to NASA, and, as I noted a while ago, the new NASA budget doesn't allow for any programs to be created without approval from the Congress, so this may be short-lived.  But damn, if it wouldn't be fucking cool.

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December 11, 2009

Back to the moon?

As the resident space nerd, I noticed today that there was a claim going around that the extra $3 billion that Big O's NASA oversite panel had recommended for the space agency to stay on track with its Constellation and Aries program had been okay'ed by a group of House and Senate negotiators.

However, somehow, the NASA budget has only been increased by $948 million, and, of course, this budgetary bill has yet to even go up for a vote in the House.  I know political math is different from real math, but even I can tell that $948 million isn't $3 billion, and I'm no expert.

So, how does $3 billion turn into just under $1 billion?  Like this:

The bill trims $28 million from the agency's $6.17 billion request for space operations and another $6 million from NASA aeronautics programs. It also shaves $3 million from NASA science programs and reduces the president's $3.4 billion request for cross-agency support by $206 million.

Another interesting thing to note in all of this is that, should this budget pass, included within the budget is a rule that NASA cannot cancel or start any new programs without going through a bunch of congressional bullshit.  So, there's that, too. 

These budgetary changes are designed to get us back to the Moon.  Still no mention of Mars.

Posted by: Ember at 07:58 PM | Comments (3) | Add Comment
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