Doug's Darkworld

War, Science, and Philosophy in a Fractured World.

Posts Tagged ‘NASA

Nasa unveils Space Launch System vision … will American Astronauts go to asteroids and Mars?

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OK, NASA has announced that the USA will return to space. In a massive Federal Program the USA is going to build the biggest rocket ever built, carry enormous amounts of stuff into orbit, and allow the USA to send manned missions to Mars and asteroids. This breathtaking plan is called the Space Launch System. *blinks* We used to call our space programs things like Mercury and Apollo, now we have Space Launch System? Marketing considerations aside, this has to be a good thing, right?

Well, not really. A bit of context here. The SLS is being built by the same people who brought us the Space Shuttle. Despite the hype, the Space shuttle is possibly the biggest boondoggle in history. It’s like the DeLorean or the Concorde, it didn’t really make sense from the beginning. And unlike them, buckets of money and blood kept being thrown at it because of national pride. And I mean blood literally, the Space Shuttle killed  a passenger an average of every nine missions or so, it’s the most dangerous vehicle ever put into regular service.

So I’m not as optimistic about this as many might be. I’m all for the exploration of space, but right now, robotic exploration seems like the way to go. This SLS program is going to consume a lot of money, which very much means that numerous other probes won’t get funded. And we’re leaving launches into low Earth orbit up to the commercial sector. In other words, we’re putting all of our eggs into one basket again. This is never a good idea.

I also think something I’ve heard called Gigantomania is coming into play. America has almost an obsession with building the biggest and best of everything. Sometimes without any clear reason why, and often ignoring practical considerations or or downstream costs. There’s a tremendous psychological and cultural component to why giant boondoggles get built, I wonder if this played a part in this decision. Or is cynically being used to promote it.

Which leads to two points, one of which is more or less self evident. This will be ever more money going to a small number of people. Very few of us are rocket scientists, and they won’t be building any space ports in a  city near you gentle reader, fifties sci fi stories to the contrary. This is not  a jobs program.  And worse, the pernicious influence of the military has to be recognized. Are there military uses for this? Yes, yes there are.

In other words, the SLS is a very expensive program that channels a lot of money to a very small number of people, its major beneficiaries are the military and the people profiting from it, and whether it works or not science loses since so many probes that could have leaned vastly more than this ever will, could have been funded. So, no matter what, the military and the rich gain, we pay for it, and if we’re really lucky we get to have a poster of some US astronaut on an asteroid or Mars holding a flag. This is going to be a very expensive poster.

Lastly, in some senses this might very well be overshadowed by other events. By any objective standard, the world is a mess right now. Right now I’d say the SLS’s chances of surviving the turmoil of the next few years are low. The US lost its mind on 9/11, and what we have sown in the first decade of this new century is bizarre. We’ve normalized endless war and infinite spending, historically this never ends well. A giant spaceship isn’t going to help.

And then throw in infinite breeding for ideological reasons, and we have the bleak topic of the next post.

(The above image is claimed as Fair Use under US copyright law, it’s an historically important image and it’s not being used for profit. It’s the Space Shuttle Challenger blowing up. Half the damn fleet blew up,how is that not a fail? Humans can be blind to failures, another topic for the future I suppose.)


Written by unitedcats

September 15, 2011 at 8:20 pm


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Yes, it’s true, scientists have discovered two huge gamma ray emitting bubbles emerging from the Milky Way. The above image is what they look like … if the viewer is considerably outside the galaxy and can see gamma rays. People can’t see gamma rays, so the above image is “false colour” so to speak. I know some people get upset that so many NASA images are false colour, but when talking about colours that people can’t see, what’s the problem? What’s the deal with these bubbles? Well, no one knows. The current best guess is that they are the remnants of some sort of outburst  from the black hole at the centre of our Galaxy. There are other possibilities, and scientists will be exploring them eagerly. And while this is an exciting discovery in that it gives us new insight into our galaxy, it has no practical bearing on Earth. These bubbles don’t and can’t effect Earth in any way, my histrionic headline notwithstanding.

Yes, there’s a black hole in the centre of our galaxy. It has about as much mass as thirty million Suns. No, it’s not going to swallow the galaxy, any more than the planets are going to get sucked into our Sun. For the lay people, a black hole is a region of space with so much mass that light can’t escape its gravity. So while it can’t be seen directly, this is what a black hole would look like up close and personal:

Well, technically one can’t actually see the black hole, but the astute reader should be able to discern where it is in the above image. The black hole is so dense that it warps and bends light that gets near it. Note that every star in the picture has at least two images, and the entire sky can be seen near the black hole as light from every direction is bent around the black hole. I know, hard to grasp, the original image is here, maybe they explain it better. I’m pretty sure that being this close to a back hole would be fatal, the gravity would be so strong that normal matter would be ripped apart.

Speaking of dark objects in space, the Mars Express recently captured this image of Phobos:

Phobos is the innermost and largest of Mars’ two moons, the other being Deimos. It’s an irregularly shaped lump of ice and rock, averaging about  22 km (14 miles) in diameter, covered with about a meter of dust. It’s the darkest moon in the Solar System, and is believed to be a captured asteroid. It’s also doomed, its orbit is slowly decaying and in the next 50 million years it will be torn apart and crash into Mars. It’s going to be a pretty spectacular sight, and if I’m still around then, I’ll be sure to blog about it.

And while we’re on the topic of Phobos, since it’s not a topic I visit regularly, two minor misconceptions to clear up. Yes, there is indeed a monolith on Phobos:

It’s the bright object with a shadow in the middle right, it’s about the size of a building, whatever that means. One will sometimes actually hear alien aficionados claim that the monolith on Phobos must be artificial and should be visited, apparently confused by the fact that there was a monolith in 2001, a Space Odyssey. The monolith in the fictional movie was made by aliens, the monolith on Phobos is a rock. Yes, it is upon such slender threads that belief in aliens resides.

It gets worse. Both moons of Mars were discovered in 1877. In the 1726 book Gulliver’s Travels there is a description of Mars having two moon very similar to the moons that were discovered more than a century later. Again, some have claimed that this is proof that aliens have visited Earth, or even that the author, Jonathon Swift, may have come from Mars. No, it’s proof that Jonathon Swift was reasonably well read. Astronomers of his day were very much looking for symmetry and order in the Solar System. It was speculated that since Venus had no moons, Earth had one moon, and Jupiter had four moons … might not Mars have two moons? And if Mars had two moons, they would have had to be very small to avoid detection by the telescopes of the day. Which is more likely, that Swift’s fictional moons were based on contemporary astronomical speculation … or personal knowledge gained from alien spacefarers?

No, it’s not a trick question. Have a great weekend everyone!

(The above images are all claimed as Fair Use under US copyright law. They are not being used for profit, they are central to illustrating the post, and they are properly attributed. Gamma Ray Bubble image, Credit: NASA/GSFC. Black hole image, Credit & Copyright: Alain Riazuelo. Phobos image, Credit: G. Neukum (FU Berlin) et al., Mars Express, DLR, ESA; Acknowledgement: Peter Masek. Phobos monolith image, Credit: Mars Global Surveyor, NASA. Is there a point to this post. Yes. We are entering the greatest age of exploration ever, the exploration of the Universe around us! I mean, two of these images were taken by cameras orbiting Mars, something that would have been considered a pipe dream by many people in living memory. How cool is that?)


Written by unitedcats

December 16, 2010 at 9:39 pm