vesta asteroid

Space exploration marches on, despite the ending of the shuttle program, sadly making America completely reliant on Russia for manned launches, which has lost 6 launches in the last year, including one from the same family as the manned missions. However, the SpaceX company is just about to fly a private small but 6-man air-launched spacecraft that is supposed to cost only 10% of the glutinous Shuttle to launch. The Dawn spacecraft reached orbit around Vesta July 16 (my brother had one of their scooters, no that's Vespa, the second biggest asteroid (330mi diam), the thousands of rocks between Mars and Jupiter once thought remnants of a shattered planet. This is very cool, there haven't been even close flybys of the big ones- they look to be dead rocks, but since they date from very early Solar System, they hold secrets of formation. It goes on to the biggest- Ceres, 590 miles dia, round, and with a Vesta, Ceres, Moonlarge amount of water ice, in Feb 2015. And it is solar-panel ion powered, blowing off inert hot Xenon ions in a very very slow acceleration that continually accumulates till the sucker is blindingly fast- it can change its direction more than any other spacecraft- 10km/s. I never even knew they were doing this- the proposed ion propulsion of sci-fi/ DARPA always relied on hot nuclear fuel as the heat source. They believe they have 200 samples of Vesta in meteorites that were blasted off it in a massive impact a billion years ago, but frankly I'm dubious they can really identify that without landing there.                                                                 Vesta fm Dawn spacecraft in orbit

Vesta, Ceres, Moon
Then the Juno spacecraft (wife of Jupiter) blared spot bigger than earthsted off Friday Aug 5 to orbit Jupiter, the gas giant that could hold the rest of planets inside 2 times over. Again its a miserable long 5 year Earth flyby slingshot trajectory because we don't have a single big booster, that invites radiation and micrometeorite damage, which happened to the 1986 (1995-2003 orbit) Galileo orbiter spacecraft - the main dish antenna never opened properly, forcing them to send everything back 1500 times slower on a car radio-like antenna. But it is much more advanced spacecraft- in a polar orbit  for 15 months to study the huge magnetism and radiation fields, analyze the mysterious cloud layers, detect a believed rock core, metallic hydrogen mantle and interior layers, and going as low as 2400 miles above the immense planet- the views of the hurtling clouds will be spectacular (Jupiter rotates very fast- 10 hours, giving it an Equatorial rotation speed of 12.6kps, faster than Earth's escape velocity), and radiation searing. This may be the lowest any orbiter has come to a planetary surface- it may actually be dangerous to it if it hits high tendrils of atmosphere (Jupiter flares?) that slow and crash it. But they're going to do that anyway, after 15 months, to avoid big Jovian moons, Io, Europa, Ganymede, Callistocontaminating the planet-wide ocean of Europa (let no man go to Europa!), like they did with Galileo. The planned NASA/ESA orbiter of the alluring Europa is now planned for 2020, but still no robot submarine to melt or blast through the ice surface to the perhaps 60 mile deep ocean. Why this isn't a priority is a mystery. Jupiter, with its incredible water ocean + volcano covered 64 moons (18 substantial), 3000 mi thick at1994 Shoemaker-Levy comet impactsmosphere, massive radiation, 400 yo Red Spot, and unfathomable cold/hot liquid/gas surface has more mysteries of the universe than the other planets combined (see Aurthur C Clarke). At $1.1 billion, this is a new major expedition that I thought NASA had abandoned.     Jovian moons, Io, Europa, Ganymede, Callisto

I watched the 6 impact blotches on the great antique big Brown refractor in '94 when the pieces of shattered  comet Shoemaker-Levy 9, smashed into Jupiter at 36 mps.  Unfortunately the impacts were just over the Jovian horizon (not for Galileo) but the flashes of the titanic explosions were visible, each big enough to be an ELE on earth- a mass extinction level event. Incredibly on a gas-liquid? surface the multiple-Earth sized dark patches lasted 5-6 weeks.

Then another rover is blasting off for Mars Thanksgiving- thiGale crater Mars landing sites one as big as a Mini-Curiosity Mars roverCooper- Curiosity, not the mini-size Spirit + Opportunity Rovers that though built for a 3 months life, lasted 7-8 years- the Opportunity just reached the edge of a big crater! Mars_Science_Laboratory   This one is specifically searching for habitable zones- has a huge range, and going to land with retro-rockets (too heavy for balloon) stopping the main spacecraft, and the rover lowered on a tether till it reaches ground, cut the cable, then the main spacecraft will crash!!!! Duh, couldn't they just land the damn thing- maybe artificial intelligence still isn't up to the task- cause the light time delay (6-22 minutes) prevents any live control of landings. Supposed to arrive in  exactly a year- Aug 6, 2012        Gale crater Mars landing site                                                                                                           
Ceres orbit w Dawn
They finally discovered a TROJAN asteroid dogging earth in a similar orbit, but 60% back- they'd seen them for all other big planets, but since they're so close to the sun (from earth), they are only visible about 1/2 hour before + after sunrise. It is about 130-300M diameter, but is in an unstable orbit 20% off of the plane of Earth's, so not a candidate for a pretty simple manned mission. One of the neat things about orbital mechanics, is if you want to go backward, you fire your rockets to go away- faster, go into a higher and slower orbit, let the trailer catch up, then fire retro rockets to slow and drop back into the same orbit. Similarly to chase someone ahead in orbit, you fire retro rockets. So every space movie is totally wrong.
  Audio of NPR SCIENCE FRIDAY show


Then you must listen to this guy talk about the sun (NPR On Point), Bob Berman (The Sun's Heartbeat), the best science communicator I've ever heard. A big solar flare happened Thurs: check your 11-4am aurora's if you are up North. Among the treasure of fascinating facts, the sun has been steadily getting 10% hotter every billion years (as hotter elements burn in the core) so the very early Earth was 35% colder than now, but that was almost exactly compensated by the huge amount of greenhouse gases, That was always a question- why the early methane + CO2 soaked Earth wouldn't have been killingly hot, but it means Earth will be uninhabitably hot in 500, maybe 300 million years- and maybe all life will die (he said 700 degrees in a billion years-ow, ow). And 10 minutes of intense sunlight makes huge amounts of Vitamin D (200 glasses of milk)- some of our modern diseases (autism?) may be due to it's absence and current cancer paranoia. The strongest color in the sun is green, and plants actually hate it and reject (reflect) it, why they are green!! And a really huge solar storm/flare as bad as 1859 would fry most of the power/land phone networks of earth- luckily we should have 1-4 days warning from the STEREO + ACE satellites, though bizarre proton storms can travel 1/3 of light speeds, and arrive in 24 minutes!?? I toured the heliotelescope on Mauna Loa (at 11,000ft, the highest and biggest atmospheric laboratories- because of laminar airflow that sucks down the stratosphere- equivalent to 31,000ft, which happens to be real height of Big Is. mtn from the bottom of ocean, biggest + highest on Earth) with a 2M wide projected image of the sun, worked on the Subaru telescope on Mauna Kea (13,700ft), and toured 10 of the world's biggest telescopes in the world there- best space visibility on earth. 

But the really really bad news for people, maybe catastrophic in just 2-3 years, is that the Sun has been in an unprecedented solar minimum (anybody hear about that?), the quietest and coolest in human record (200 years) from 2006-2009- no sunspots at all for 800 days, but EVEN WITH THAT, we had the hottest years in history, 2005 and 2010, when the cooler Sun was perhaps negating 30-50% of global warming (though there was a major solar eruption in July 2010). In the Little Ice Age (1645-1750), the sunspots stopped and the Thames and Venice froze over. The coming solar maximum, with maximum sunspot activity and maximum heat output (11 year cycle max-min) is forecast to be 2013-2015, which if it is intense may be when the first Great Drought rips through the world. Texas everywhere. Civilization as we know it may itself be on a very fragile tether.

GAS PRINCESS IN THE DOCKtymo-supportr on Kreshatuk

yanukovich postr at tymo demoThe contemptible prosecution of former PM and near-President Yulia Tymoshenko continues- the judge jailed her Friday to the shock of the world- she was contemptuous but he earned it, giving her new lawyers 2 days to review 5000 pages of charges. Yanukovich isn't content to monopolize every power in the country- being an ex-mugger convict he must destroy the opposition as an object lesson to any possible future challenge, as Putin did- that's what the Khodorkovsky jailing was all about. The charges against her and fmr Justice Min. Lutsenko are nonsense-

        Tymoshenko demonstrator in front of court on Kreshchatuk
Yanukovich: "What's our life: Caviar!" (play on TV show name)                     
no doubt she has done many crooked things (all officials are on the take here, but the charges concern her simple official decisions that they are calling treason.  Her people, inc MP's have occupied the entire block in front of the courthouse on busy Kreshatuk- they will violently disperse them, I think. It has allied Yatsenuk,  world boxing champion Klitschko, and other factions in an anti-dictatorship alliance. But it will also scuttle Ukraine's integration into Europe and may cripple the Euro 2012 soccer games- a French group called on Euro officials to cancel Ukr participation.                       

                                                                                                                    Michael Hammerschlag©2011

Michael Hammerschlag has worked on the top of Mauna Kea, seen 3 total solar eclipses, 3 lunar eclipses, 6 planets, 8 moons. 3 comets, assorted galaxies, a nighttime polar shuttle launch from 3 mi., and will go into space when he has a spare $20 million. He has written articles on the Titan Landing, Voyager Missions, SETI project, and catastrophic planetary impacters.