January 2009

Space Burials

Gene Roddenberry was the creator of Star Trek, one of the finest science fiction inventions ever to capture the public imagination. He died back in 1991 and in 1997 some of his ashes were launched into space by a Houston based company called Celestis who specialise in space burials. His widow, Majel Barrett Roddenberry died recently and she was heavily involved in the franchise, appearing in the pilot episode and in various parts throughout the years most recently as the voice of the computer in the upcoming Star Trek film due to be released this summer. As a fitting tribute to the couple their ashes will be launched into space in 2012. Celestis have conducted a number of space burials and the writer Timothy Leary and Start Trek actor James Doohan were both cremated with their ashes being launched into space to orbit the earth.

Methane on Mars

Mars is conventionally described as a cold, lifeless world that's a giant barren desert, because the surface explorations we've made via Mars Rovers pretty much demonstrate that. But NASA's recently released data about Methane on Mars is providing fodder for excitement, and speculation.

Space Travel: Let Them Eat Silkworms

Science Magazine reports that Chinese researchers have decided that silkworms would be the most optimum food source for space travelers on long-distance voyages. This makes perfect sense, from a logical standpoint. Silkworms produce very little excrement (compared to chickens and cows), and are not very sensitive to disturbances or environmental conditions (unlike fish). Silkworms "breed quickly, require little space and water, and generate only small amounts of excrement, which could serve as fertilizer." The researchers also found that silkworms are surprisingly nutritious - chock full of protein and amino acids.

400th Anniversary of Galileo's Discoveries

2009 is the 400th anniversary of Galileo Galilei's cosmos-destroying observations and discoveries. They include the fact that Venus has phases, that Jupiter has moons, and a number of other observations that helped create modern astronomy and encouraged Galileo to support a solar-centric Copernican view, which, of course, did not make him BFF with the Inquisition, or the Catholic church, who favored the inaccurate but comforting geocentric view, which believed that the sun revolved around the earth.

Space Balloons

NASA's remaining shuttle is nearly 30 years old and scheduled to be retired in 2010. NASA's new spaceship, Orion, won't be ready for launch until 2015, according to the current budget and schedule. NASA is reported to be examining alternatives for maintaining space transport, either moving up the completion date for Orion—an expensive strategy—or else extending the current shuttle program (also expensive, and with every trip the aging shuttle runs a higher risk of accident or disaster.)

NASA's quandary is nothing new. In fact, it brings up the same problem we've been looking at pretty much since our first ventures into space: what's the best way to get there? Putting stuff on a big rocket, fueled with super-test fossil-fuels, and blasting it into space by sheer force has worked pretty well, so far. Except it's expensive, and rockets tend to blow up, since . . . well . . . they're explosive by design.

Lunar Base: Living on the Moon

The idea of a lunar base has long been discussed and first reared its head in science fiction. A lunar base could be used as a research centre, a base for further exploration of our galaxy and as a possible location for advanced astronomical telescopes. However any such undertaking would be massively expensive and scientists are still arguing about how useful such a structure would be. In 1998 a NASA space probe sent to the moon discovered high concentrations of hydrogen in deep polar craters on the moon. Some scientists have suggested that there could be large deposits of lunar ice contained in these craters which remain untouched by the suns rays. There have been suggestions that the ice could help support human life on the moon and perhaps even be split into liquid hydrogen and oxygen to produce rocket propellant.

Milky Way Galaxy: Movin' on Up

The most distant object easily visible to the human eye is the Andromeda Galaxy, roughly two million light-years away, our nearest neighbor galaxy, and very very large. Without a telescope Andromeda looks like a faint, gassy cloud in the constellation Andromeda. Conventional astronomical reasoning for years has held that Andromeda, also known as M31, was larger and denser than our own Milky Way galaxy. Using a high-end telescope, and multiple digital images, Andromeda looks like the image embedded to the left.

Space Tourism Sooner than you Think?

The idea of space tourism has been around for quite a while now with several millionaires expressing a serious interest in paying for a trip into outer space. First touted by science fiction writers, in the last few years the idea seems to have gained some pace and looks like it may become a reality fairly soon. Branson’s Virgin Group founded a company called Virgin Galactic in 2004 with the stated aim of flying non trained tourists on sub-orbital and eventually orbital flights. The first flights will go to an altitude of 62 miles and allow the passengers to experience weightlessness for a cost of $200,000 each.

Dark Skies in 2009

Wired News reports that scientists and astronomers have formed the Dark Skies Awareness group, which as part of the 2009 International Year of Astronomy is going to lobby for people to turn out the lights. The group reports that a fifth of the world's population cannot see the Milky Way because of light pollution. Light pollution is a serious problem for astronomers. At the Palomar observatory in California, city lights are now directly observable through a gap in the mountains.