Near Misses and Dodged Bullets

Where’s the kaboom?

Interesting goings-on in our night sky recently – check out this amateur video of something big hitting something even bigger: Mysterious Impact Flash on Jupiter.

Now, understand I use the “amateur” term carefully. There’s a huge global network of astronomers out there who do this stuff purely for fun and personal interest. Some of the equipment they have is astounding, and they got mad skillz. Professional astronomers count on these guys for cataloging phenomena that the Big Dogs just can’t devote scope time to: stuff like variable stars, planetary occultations, Martian dust storms, and comets (many of the named comets were discovered by non-professionals).

Apparently that list also includes potential civilization-destroying rogue asteroids.

Yeah, I left the best part for last: from iO9, speculation that perhaps Jupiter took one for the team. There’s been a lot of that lately, come to think of it.

So, are the massive outer planets with their deep gravity wells actually a picket system for the smaller inner planets – namely, the ones that could support life? More specifically, ours?

This is a theory which has been gaining traction over the years. Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus (stop giggling), and Neptune patrol the far reaches of our solar system, sucking in or otherwise diverting species-threatening chunks of rock and ice that otherwise might find themselves on orbits that intersect ours at really inconvenient times. Like, you know, when we’re in the same place.

NEO (Near-Earth Object) detection has been getting more and more attention of late, but an observer’s position on our globe makes a big difference: if you’re in North America, most of the southern sky is permanently out of reach. If you’re in Australia, the problem is reversed. And as I understand it, there isn’t a lot of observing capability in the southern hemisphere. If you look at the distribution of population and land mass, it’s not hard to see why. But the rocks are still out there.

NASA has proposed a manned mission to a NEO using the Orion spacecraft it’s developing, and there are plenty of candidate asteroids out there. I’m all for it if they can afford it. Besides going farther than the Moon, to something humans have never encountered, it’s a good idea to understand these things better so as to be able to deflect or destroy them before one of them eventually gets pitched through the strike zone right into home plate.

So could NASA do it? Sure, if they ever get Orion flying. The whole idea is that it would need less delta-V than a lunar mission and it could be done without a specialized lander – so it’s less of an engineering hurdle and more of a logistics problem. LockMart has already studied this extensively, calling it the “Plymouth Rock” mission.

Could private space do it? Well, ya’ll can probably guess how I feel about that. Once a manned Dragon is ready, I’ll bet SpaceX could put a mission together in short order if they really wanted to.

This is why building routine low-cost access to space is important: it enables us get out there and do something about it. Space travel isn’t easy or inherently safe, but there’s no reason the mechanical aspects of it can’t be made reliable and modular. Which of course is exactly what SpaceX, Bigelow, XCor, Masten, et al., are trying to do.

Think about this: what would you need to put together an asteroid mission?

Well, there’s the transportation up and down: Dragon.

How about a crew habitat and life support? Bigelow Sundancers would be a good start.

Propulsion? I don’t know, maybe existing Centaur kick-stages or whatever that Russian booster Space Adventures is using for their lunar orbit tourist flight.

Get the idea? The basic components either exist or are in development with test articles already flown in orbit. But as they say, the devil’s in the details: radiation shielding being the most obvious. Leaving the protection of the Van Allen belts is a real hazard – the Apollo program didn’t really address it, placing their faith in probability. That is, the missions were of short enough duration that the likelihood of being fried by a Coronal Mass Ejection was acceptably low. But they also recognized that if they kept going, it would eventually happen. A two or three month flight to an asteroid raises the odds significantly.

Which brings us back to my point: none of this is without risk. But nothing worth doing ever is. In the meantime, if you want to get a good idea of the sort of widespread mayhem even a relatively small asteroid or comet could produce, check out this handy little Calculator of Mass Destruction.

And be thankful that our solar system has been blessed with these gas giants which are not only nice to look at, but which protect us from all manner of big space junk.

Wow. Just…Wow.

Yet another awe-inspiring time lapse video from the International Space Station. It’s about 1 frame per second, which is apparently close to a real-time view.

So watch, and imagine you’re chillin’ in the observation cupola of the ISS. Which, by the way, looks an awful lot like the windows on a Star Wars TIE fighter:

Or, you can imagine you’re watching this from the flight deck of the Austral Clipper. And by the way, the hard-copy proof of Perigee finally arrived in the mail today. If I can’t find any problems with it, look for it to be on sale this weekend…wOOt!



Snoopy Come Home

I don’t know if this project is comparable to finding a needle in a haystack. Maybe more like finding a particular grain of sand on a beach.

I’m a bit of a math geek but the prospect of finding a 42-year-old Lunar Module cast away to orbit the Sun boggles the mind. It can probably be done as we have a pretty good handle on orbital mechanics. Limiting the variables will be a problem. To my amateur’s mind, the big questions would be getting precise enough data on the LM’s orbital elements after they left it behind, and what kind of other weird cosmic effects may have pushed it around over the last four decades. Solar wind and gravity gradients are way beyond my layman’s knowledge.

Apollo 10 was a dry run for the first landing mission, Apollo 11. Their orbit took them pretty darn close the the Moon’s surface, and they did everything but actually land. But even if the crew had grown a wild hair and decided to go for it, they would’ve been in for a long stay. The Lunar Module for the dry-run mission was used precisely because it was too heavy for a landing attempt. Grumman had embarked on an aggressive weight-reduction program for the landers, and apparently this one (LM-4, named “Snoopy” by the crew) didn’t make it to the scales in time.

But don’t feel too bad for the guys who almost made it. Two of the crew (Gene Cernan and John Young) ended up going back as mission commanders. Of the very few men who’ve been to the Moon, they’re part of the really select few who have done it twice. The third, Jim Lovell, flew around it twice on Apollo 8 and Apollo 13.

You’ve probably heard of that last mission. I would imagine his frustration at not landing was tempered by the relief of just getting back alive.

And in case you’re wondering, Apollo 10’s Command Module was named (you guessed it) Charlie Brown. Not sure where Lucy and Linus fit in here, but Snoopy actually has a long history with the space program, particularly during the 60’s when both the agency and the comic strip were at their heights. The Silver Snoopy is still a prized award within NASA ranks.