HAPPY BIRTHDAY NASA

October 17, 2018


Some information for this post is taken from NASA Tech Briefs, Vol 42, No.10

On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1, the world’s first artificial satellite.  I remember the announcement just as though it was yesterday.  Walter Cronkite announced the “event” on the CBS evening news.  That single event was a game-changer and sent the United States into action. That’s when we realized we were definitely behind the curve.  The launch provided the impetus for increased spending for aerospace endeavors, technical and scientific educational programs, and the chartering of a new federal agency to manage air and space research and development. The United States and Russia were engaged in a Cold War, and during this period of time, space exploration emerged as a major area of concern.  In short, they beat us to the punch and caught us with our pants down.

As a result, President Dwight David Eisenhower created the National Aeronautics and Space Administration or NASA.  NASA opened for business on October 1, 1958, with T. Keith Glenman, president of the Case Institute of Technology, as its first administrator.  NASA’s primary goal was to “provide research into the problems of flight within and outside the Earth’s atmosphere, and other purposes. “(Not too sure the “other purposes” was fully explained but that’s no real problem.  The “spooks” had input into the overall mission of NASA due to the Cold War.)

NASA absorbed NACA (National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics) including three major research laboratories: 1.) Langley Aeronautical Laboratory, 2.) Ames Aeronautical Laboratory, and 3.) the Lewis Flight Propulsion Laboratory.  There were two smaller laboratories included with the new Federal branch also.  NASA quickly incorporated other organizations into its new agency, notably the space science group of the Naval Research Laboratory in Maryland, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory managed by Caltech for the Army and the Army Ballistic Missile Agency in Huntsville, Alabama. As you recall, Dr. Werner von Braun’s team of engineers were at that time engaged in the development of very large rockets.

The very first launch for NASA was from Cape Canaveral, Florida.  It was the Pioneer I, which launched on October 11, 1958. In May of 1959, Pioneer 4 was launched to the Moon, successfully making the first U.S. lunar flyby.

NASA’s first high-profile program involving human spaceflight was Project Mercury, an effort to learn if humans could survive the rigors of spaceflight.  On May 5, 1961, Alan B. Shepard Jr. became the first American to fly into space.  He rode his Mercury capsule on a fifteen (15) minute suborbital mission.

On May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy announced the goal of sending astronauts to the moon and back before the end of the decade.  To facilitate this goal, NASA expanded the existing manned spaceflight program in December 1961 to include the development of a two-man spacecraft. The program was officially designated Gemini and represented a necessary intermediate step in sending men to the moon on what became known as the Apollo Missions.  I had the great pleasure of being in the Air Force at that period of history and worked on the Titan II Missile.  The Titan II shot the Mercury astronauts into orbit.  Every launch was a specular success for our team at the Ogden Air Material Area located at Hill Air Force Base in Ogden, Utah.  The missile has since been made obsolete by other larger and more powerful rockets but it was the “ride” back in those days.

One thing I greatly regret is the cessation of maned-flight by our government.  All of the efforts expended during the days of Mercury, Gemini and Apollo have not been totally lost but we definitely have relinquished our dominance in manned space travel.  Once again, you can thank your “local politicians” for that great lack of vision.

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JUNO SPACECRAFT

July 21, 2016


The following information was taken from the NASA web site and the Machine Design Magazine.

BACKGROUND:

After an almost five-year journey to the solar system’s largest planet, NASA’s Juno spacecraft successfully entered Jupiter’s orbit during a thirty-five (35) minute engine burn. Confirmation the burn was successful was received on Earth at 8:53 p.m. PDT (11:53 p.m. EDT) Monday, July 4. A message from NASA is as follows:

“Independence Day always is something to celebrate, but today we can add to America’s birthday another reason to cheer — Juno is at Jupiter,” said NASA administrator Charlie Bolden. “And what is more American than a NASA mission going boldly where no spacecraft has gone before? With Juno, we will investigate the unknowns of Jupiter’s massive radiation belts to delve deep into not only the planet’s interior, but into how Jupiter was born and how our entire solar system evolved.”

Confirmation of a successful orbit insertion was received from Juno tracking data monitored at the navigation facility at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, as well as at the Lockheed Martin Juno operations center in Littleton, Colorado. The telemetry and tracking data were received by NASA’s Deep Space Network antennas in Goldstone, California, and Canberra, Australia.

“This is the one time I don’t mind being stuck in a windowless room on the night of the 4th of July,” said Scott Bolton, principal investigator of Juno from Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio. “The mission team did great. The spacecraft did great. We are looking great. It’s a great day.”

Preplanned events leading up to the orbital insertion engine burn included changing the spacecraft’s attitude to point the main engine in the desired direction and then increasing the spacecraft’s rotation rate from 2 to 5 revolutions per minute (RPM) to help stabilize it..

The burn of Juno’s 645-Newton Leros-1b main engine began on time at 8:18 p.m. PDT (11:18 p.m. EDT), decreasing the spacecraft’s velocity by 1,212 miles per hour (542 meters per second) and allowing Juno to be captured in orbit around Jupiter. Soon after the burn was completed, Juno turned so that the sun’s rays could once again reach the 18,698 individual solar cells that give Juno its energy.

“The spacecraft worked perfectly, which is always nice when you’re driving a vehicle with 1.7 billion miles on the odometer,” said Rick Nybakken, Juno project manager from JPL. “Jupiter orbit insertion was a big step and the most challenging remaining in our mission plan, but there are others that have to occur before we can give the science team the mission they are looking for.”

Can you imagine a 1.7 billion (yes that’s with a “B”) mile journey AND the ability to monitor the process?  This is truly an engineering feat that should make history.   (Too bad our politicians are busy getting themselves elected and reelected.)

Over the next few months, Juno’s mission and science teams will perform final testing on the spacecraft’s subsystems, final calibration of science instruments and some science collection.

“Our official science collection phase begins in October, but we’ve figured out a way to collect data a lot earlier than that,” said Bolton. “Which when you’re talking about the single biggest planetary body in the solar system is a really good thing. There is a lot to see and do here.”

Juno’s principal goal is to understand the origin and evolution of Jupiter. With its suite of nine science instruments, Juno will investigate the existence of a solid planetary core, map Jupiter’s intense magnetic field, measure the amount of water and ammonia in the deep atmosphere, and observe the planet’s auroras. The mission also will let us take a giant step forward in our understanding of how giant planets form and the role these titans played in putting together the rest of the solar system. As our primary example of a giant planet, Jupiter also can provide critical knowledge for understanding the planetary systems being discovered around other stars.

The Juno spacecraft launched on Aug. 5, 2011 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. JPL manages the Juno mission for NASA. Juno is part of NASA’s New Frontiers Program, managed at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, for the agency’s Science Mission Directorate. Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Denver built the spacecraft. The California Institute of Technology in Pasadena manages JPL for NASA.

SYSTEMS:

Before we list the systems, let’s take a look at the physical “machine”.

Juno Configuration

As you can see, the design is truly remarkable and includes the following modules:

  • SOLAR PANELS—Juno requires 18,000 solar cells to gather enough energy for it’s journey, 508 million miles from our sun.  In January, Juno broke the record as the first solar-powered spacecraft to fly further than 493 million miles from the sun.
  • RADIATION VAULT—During its polar orbit, Juno will repeatedly pass through the intense radiation belt that surrounds Jupiter’s equator, charged by ions and particles from Jupiter’s atmosphere and moons suspended in Juno’s colossal magnetic field. The magnetic belt, which measures 1,000 times the human toxicity level, has a radio frequency that can be detected from Earth and extends into earth’s orbit.
  • GRAVITY SCIENCE EXPERIMENT—Using advanced gravity science tools; Juno will create a detailed map of Jupiter’s gravitational field to infer Jupiter’s mass distribution and internal structure.
  • VECTOR MAGNETOMETER (MAG)—Juno’s next mission is to map Jupiter’s massive magnetic field, which extends approximately two (2) million miles toward the sun, shielding Jupiter from solar flares.  It also tails out for more than six hundred (600) million miles in solar orbit.  The dynamo is more than 20,000 times greater than that of the Earth.
  • MICROWAVE RADIOMETERS–Microwave radiomometers (MWR) will detect six (6) microwave and radio frequencies generated by the atmosphere’s thermal emissions.  This will aid in determining the depths of various cloud forms.
  • DETAILED MAPPING OF AURORA BOREALIS AND PLASMA CONTENT—As Juno passes Jupiter’s poles, cameral will capture high-resolution images of aurora borealis, and particle detectors will analyze the plasmas responsible for them.  Not only are Jupiter’s auroras much larger than those of Earth, they are also much more frequent because they are created by atmospheric plasma rather than solar flares.
  • JEDI MEASURES HIGH-ENERGY PARTICLES–Three Jupiter energetic particle detector instruments (JEDIs) will measure the angular distribution of high-energy particles as they interact with Jupiter’s upper atmospheres and inner magnetospheres to contribute to Jupiter’s northern and southern lights.
  • JADE MEASURE OF LOW-ENERGY PARTICLES—JADE, the Jovian Aurora Distributions Experiment, works in conjunction with DEDI to measure the angular distribution of lower-energy electrons and ions ranging from zero (0) to thirty (30) electron volts.
  • WAVES MEASURES PLASMA MOVEMENT—The radio/plasma wave experiment, called WAVES, will be used to measure radio frequencies  (50 Hz to 40 MHz) generated by the plasma in the magnetospheres.
  • UVS,JIRAM CAPTURE NORTHERN/SOUTHERN LIGHTS—By capturing wavelength of seventy (70) to two hundred and five (205) nm, an ultraviolet imager/spectrometer (UVS) will generate images of the auroras UV spectrum to view the auroras during the Jovian day.
  • HIGH-RESOLUTION CAMERA—JunoCam, a high-resolution color camera, will capture red, green and blue wavelengths photos of Jupiter’s atmosphere and aurora.  The NASA team expects the camera to last about seven orbits before being destroyed by radiation.

CONCLUSION:

This technology is truly amazing to me.  Think of the planning, the engineering design, the testing, the computer programming needed to bring this program to fruition.  Amazing!

 

R & D SPINOFFS

March 12, 2016


Last week I posted an article on WordPress entitled “Global Funding”.  The post was a prognostication relative to total global funding in 2016 through 2020 for research and development in all disciplines.  I certainly hope there are no arguments as to benefits of R & D.  R & D is the backbone of technology.  The manner in which science pushes the technological envelope is research and development.  The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has provided a great number of spinoffs that greatly affect everyday lives remove drudgery from activities that otherwise would consume a great deal of time and just plain sweat.  The magazine “NASA Tech Briefs”, March 2016, presented forty such spinoffs demonstrating the great benefits of NASA programs over the years.  I’m not going to resent all forty but let’s take a look at a few to get a flavor of how NASA R & D has influenced consumers the world over.  Here we go.

  • DIGITAL IMAGE SENSORS—The CMOS active pixel sensor in most digital image-capturing devices was invented when NASA needed to miniaturize cameras for interplanety missions.  It is also widely used in medical imaging and dental X-ray devices.
  • Aeronautical Winglets—Key aerodynamic advances made by NASA researchers led to the up-turned tips of wings known as “winglets.”  Winglets are used by nearly all modern aircraft and have saved literally billions of dollars in fuel costs.
  • Precision GPS—Beginning in the early 1990s, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratories (JPL) developed software capable of correcting for GPS errors.  NASA monitors the integrity of global GPS data in real time for the U.S. Air Force, which administers the positioning service world-wide.
  • Memory Foam—Memory foam was invented by NASA-funded researchers looking for ways to keep test pilots cushioned during flights.  Today, memory foam makes for more comfortable beds, couches, and chairs, as well as better shoes, movie theater seats, and even football helmets.
  • Truck Aerodynamics—Nearly all trucks on the road have been shaped by NASA.  Agency research in aerodynamic design led to the curves and contours that help modern big rigs cut through the air with less drag. Perhaps, as much as 6,800 gallons of diesel per year per truck has been saved.
  • Invisible Braces for Teeth—A company working with NASA invented the translucent ceramic that became the critical component for the first “invisible” dental braces, which went on to become one of the best-selling orthodontic products of all time.
  • Tensile Fabric for Architecture—A material originally developed for spacesuits can be seen all over the world in stadiums, arenas, airports, pavilions, malls, and museums. BirdAir Inc. developed the fabric from fiberglass and Teflon composite that once protected Apollo astronauhts as they roamed the lunar surface.  Today, that same fabric shades and protects people in public places.
  • Supercritical Wing—NASA engineers at Langley Research Center improved wing designs resulting in remarkable performance of an aircraft approaching the speed of sound.
  • Phase-change Materials—Research on next-generation spacesuits included the development of phase-change materials, which can absorb, hold, and release heat to keep people comfortable.  This technology is now found in blankets, bed sheets, dress shirts, T-shirts, undergarments, and other products.
  • Cardiac Pump—Hundreds of people in need of a heart transplant have been kept alive thanks to a cardiac pump designed with the help of NASA expertise in simulating fluid-flow through rocket engines.  This technology served as a “bridge” to the transplant methodology.
  • Flexible Aeorgel—Aeorgel is a porous material in which the liquid component of the gel has been carefully dried out and replaced by gas, leaving a solid almost entirely of air.  It long held the record as the world’s lightest solid, and is one of the most effective insulator in existence.
  • Digital Fly-By-Wire—For the first seventy (70) years of human flight, pilots used controls that connected directly to aircraft components through cables and pushrods. A partnership between NASA and Draper Laboratory in the 1970 resulted in the first plane flown digitally, where a computer collected all of the input from the pilot’s controls and used that information to command aerodynamic surfaces.
  • Cochlear Implants—One of the pioneers in early cochlear implant technology was Adam Kissiah, an engineer at Kennedy Space Center.  Mr. Kissiah was hearing-impaired and used NASA technology to greatly improve hearing devices by developing implants that worked by electric impulses rather than sound amplification.
  • Radiant Barrier—To keep people and spacecraft safe from harmful radiation, NASA developed a method for depositing a thin metal coating on a material to make it highly reflective. On Earth, it has become known as radiant barrier technology.
  • Gigapan Photography—Since 2004, new generations of Mars rovers have been stunning the world with high-resolution imagery.  Though equipped with only one megapixel cameras, the Spirit and Opportunity rovers have a robotic platform and software that allows them to combine dozens of shots into a single photograph.
  • Anti-icing Technology—NASA has spent many years solving problems related to ice accumulation in flight surfaces.  These breakthroughs have been applied to commercial aircraft flight.
  • Emergency Blanket—So-called space blankets, also known as emergency blankets, were first developed by NASA in 1964.  The highly reflective insulators are often included in emergency kits, and are used by long-distance runners and fire-team personnel.
  • Firefighter Protection—NASA helped develop a line of polymer textiles for use in spacesuits and vehicles.  Dubbed, PBI, the heat and flame-resistant fiber is now used in numerous firefighting, military, motor sports, and other applications.

These are just a few of the many NASA spinoffs that have solved down-to-earth problems for people over the world.  Let’s continue funding NASA to ensure future wonderful and usable technology.


I remain absolutely amazed at the engineering effort involving the space probe NASA calls “NEW HORIZONS”.  The technology, hardware, software and communication package allowing the flyby is truly phenomenal—truly.  One thing that strikes me is the predictability of planetary movements so the proper trajectory may be accomplished.   Even though we live in an expanding universe, the physics and mathematics describing planetary motion is solid.  Let us take a very quick look at several specifics.

THE MISSION:

PROJECT

SPECIFICS:

  • LAUNCH:  January 19, 2006
  • Launch Vehicle:  Atlas V 551, first stage: Centaur Rocket, second stage: STAR 48B solid rocket third stage
  • Launch Location:  Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida
  • Trajectory:  To Pluto via Jupiter Gravity Assist
  • The teams had to hone the New Horizons spacecraft’s 3 billion plus-mile flight trajectory to fit inside a rectangular flyby delivery zone measuring only 300 kilometers by 150 kilometers. This level of accuracy and control truly blows my mind.
  • New Horizon used both radio and optical navigation for the journey to Pluto.  Pluto is only about half the size of our Moon and circles our Sun roughly every 248 years. (I mentioned predictability earlier.  Now you see what I mean. )
  • The New Horizon craft is traveling 36,373 miles per hour and has traversed 4.67 billion miles in nine (9) years.
  • New Horizon will come as close as 7,800 miles from the surface of Pluto.
  • Using LORRI (Long Range Reconnaissance Imager) — the most crucial instrument for optical navigation on the spacecraft; the New Horizon team took short 100 to 150 millisecond exposures to minimize image smear. Such images helped give the teams an estimate of the direction from the spacecraft to Pluto.
  •  The photographs from the flyby are sensational and very detailed relative to what was expected.
  • The spacecraft flew by the Pluto–Charon system on July 14, 2015, and has now completed the science of its closest approach phase. New Horizons has signaled the event by a “phone home” with telemetry reporting that the spacecraft was healthy, its flight path was within the margins, and science data of the Pluto–Charon system had been recorded.

HARDWARE:

The hardware for the mission is given with the graphic below.  From this pictorial we see the following sub-systems:

  • PEPSSI
  • SWAP
  • LORRI
  • SDC
  • RALPH
  • ALICE
  • REX(HGA)

The explanation for each sub-system is given with the graphic.   As you can see:  an extremely complex piece of equipment representing many hours of engineering design and overall effort.

 

HARDWARE

GOALS FOR THE MISSION:

The goal of the mission is to understand the formation of the Pluto system, the Kuiper belt, and the transformation of the early Solar System.  This understanding will greatly aid our efforts in understanding how our own planet evolved over the centuries.  New Horizon will study the atmospheres, surfaces, interiors and environments of Pluto and its moons.  It will also study other objects in the Kuiper belt.  By way of comparison, New Horizons will gather 5,000 times as much data at Pluto as Mariner did at Mars.  Combine the data from New Horizons with the data from the Mariner mission and you have complementary pieces of a fascinating puzzle.

Some of the questions the mission will attempt to answer are: What is Pluto’s atmosphere made of and how does it behave?  What does its surface look like? Are there large geological structures? How do solar wind particles interact with Pluto’s atmosphere?

Specifically, the mission’s science objectives are to:

  • map the surface composition of Pluto and Charon
  • characterize the geology and morphology of Pluto and Charon
  • characterize the neutral atmosphere of Pluto and its escape rate
  • search for an atmosphere around Charon
  • map surface temperatures on Pluto and Charon
  • search for rings and additional satellites around Pluto
  • conduct similar investigations of one or more Kuiper belt objects

NOTE:  Charon is also called (134340) Pluto I and is the largest of the five known moons of Pluto.  It was discovered in 1978 at the United States Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C., using photographic plates taken at the United States Naval Observatory Flagstaff Station (NOFS). It is a very large moon in comparison to its parent body, Pluto. Its gravitational influence is such that the center of the Pluto–Charon system lies outside Pluto.

HISTORY:

When it was first discovered, Pluto was the coolest planet in the solar system. Before it was even named, TIME that “the New Planet,” 50 times farther from the sun than Earth, “gets so little heat from the sun that most substances of Earth would be frozen solid or into thick jellies.”

The astronomer Clyde W. Tombaugh, then a 24-year-old research assistant at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Ariz., was the first to find photographic evidence of a ninth planet on this day, February 18, 85 years ago.  His discovery launched a worldwide scramble to name the frozen, farthest-away planet. Since the astronomer Percival Lowell had predicted its presence fifteen (15) years earlier, per TIME, and even calculated its approximate position based on the irregularity of Neptune’s orbit, the team at Lowell Observatory considered his widow’s suggestion of “Percival,” but found it not quite planetary enough. The director of the Harvard Observatory suggested “Cronos,” the sickle-wielding son of Uranus in Greek myth.  But the team opted instead for “Pluto,” the Roman god of the Underworld — the suggestion of an 11-year-old British schoolgirl who told the BBC she was enthralled with Greek and Roman mythology. Her grandfather had read to her from the newspaper about the planet’s discovery, and when she proposed the name, he was so taken with it that he brought it to the attention of a friend who happened to be an astronomy professor at Oxford University. The Lowell team went for Pluto partly because it began with Percival Lowell’s initials.

Pluto the Disney dog, it should be noted, had nothing to do with the girl’s choice. Although the cartoon character also made its first appearance in 1930, it did so shortly after the planet was named, as the BBC noted. While Pluto was downgraded to “dwarf planet” status in 2006, it remains a popular subject for astronomers. They began discovering similar small, icy bodies during the 1990s in the same region of the solar system, which has become known as the Kuiper Belt. Just because Pluto’s not alone doesn’t make it any less fascinating, according to Alan Stern, director of a NASA mission, New Horizons that will explore and photograph Pluto in an unprecedented spacecraft flyby on July 14 of this year.

“This epic journey is very much the Everest of planetary exploration,” Stern wrote in TIME last month. “Pluto was the first of many small planets discovered out there, and it is still both the brightest and the largest one known.”

NASA released its first images of Pluto from the New Horizons mission earlier this month, although the probe was still 126 million miles away from its subject; the release was timed to coincide with Tombaugh’s birthday. Stern wrote, when the pictures were released, “These images of Pluto, clearly brighter and closer than those New Horizons took last July from twice as far away, represent our first steps at turning the pinpoint of light Clyde saw in the telescopes at Lowell Observatory eighty-five (85) years ago, into a planet before the eyes of the world this summer.”

CONCLUSION:

AMAZING ENGINEERING ACCOMPLISHMENT!

FERMI’S PARADOX

May 30, 2015


The sources for this post are as follows: 1.) waitbutwhy.com, 2.) SETI Institute, and 3.) Wikipedia.

“Some people stick with the traditional, feeling struck by the epic beauty or blown away by the scale of the universe.  Personally, I go for the old existential meltdown followed by acting next half hour. But everyone feels something”.  Physicist Enrico Fermi felt something too and asked—“Where is everybody?”

QUESTION:  Our Galaxy Should Be Teeming With Civilizations, But Where Are They?

The remark came while Fermi was discussing with his mealtime mates the possibility that many sophisticated societies populate the Galaxy.  In 1950, while working at Los Alamos National Laboratory, Fermi had a casual conversation while walking to lunch with colleagues Emil KonopinskiEdward Teller and Herbert York.    The men discussed recent sightings of UFOs and an Alan Dunn cartoon facetiously blaming the disappearance of municipal trashcans on marauding aliens. They then had a more serious discussion regarding the chances of humans observing faster-than-light travel by some material object within the next ten years. Teller thinks Fermi directed the question at him, asking “Edward, what do you think? How probable is it that within the next ten years we shall have clear evidence of a material object moving faster than light?” Teller answered one in a million. Teller remembers Fermi said, “This is much too low. The probability is more like ten percent” [the probability of a ‘Fermi miracle’]. Konopinski did not remember the exact numbers “except that they changed rapidly as Teller and Fermi bounced arguments off each other.”  They thought it reasonable to assume that we have a lot of cosmic company. But somewhere between one sentence and the next, Fermi’s supple brain realized that if this was true, it implied something profound. If there are really a lot of alien societies, then some of them might have spread out.

A really starry sky seems vast—but all we’re looking at is our very local neighborhood. On the very best nights, we can see up to about 2,500 stars or roughly one hundred-millionth of the stars in our galaxy. Almost all of them are less than 1,000 light years away from us (or 1% of the diameter of the Milky Way).  It is very hard to imagine the magnitude of this very fact but our universe is IMMENSE. So what we’re really looking at is this:

Milky Way Galaxy

Let us take a look at just how grandiose our universe is.

  • As many stars as there are in our galaxy (100 – 400 billion), there are roughly an equal number of galaxies in the observable universe so, for every star in the colossal Milky Way, there is a whole galaxy out there. All together, that equates to a range of between 1022 and 1024 total stars.   This means that for every grain of sand on every beach on Earth, there are 10,000 stars out there.  Numbers very hard for anyone to deal with.
  • There is not total agreement concerning what percentage of those stars are “sun-like” (similar in size, temperature, and luminosity).  Opinions typically range from five (5%) to twenty (20%). Going with the most conservative side of that five percent (5%), and the lower end for the number of total stars (1022), gives us 500 quintillion, or 500 billion billion sun-like stars.
  • There’s also a debate over what percentage of those sun-like stars might be orbited by an Earth-like planet (one with similar temperature conditions that could have liquid water and potentially support life similar to that on Earth). Some say it’s as high as fifty percent (50%) but let’s go with the more conservative twenty-two percent (22%) that came out of a recent PNAS study. That suggests that there’s a potentially-habitable Earth-like planet orbiting at least one percent (1%) of the total stars in the universe—a total of 100 billion billion Earth-like planets.  So there are 100 Earth-like planets for every grain of sand in the world. Think about that next time you’re on the beach.
  • Moving forward, we have no choice but to get completely speculative. Let’s imagine that after billions of years in existence, one percent (1%) of Earth-like planets develop life.  If that’s true, every grain of sand would represent one planet with life on it.  Imagine that on one percent (1%) of those planets, the life advances to an intelligent level like it did here on Earth. That would mean there were 10 quadrillion or 10 million billion intelligent civilizations in the observable universe.
  • Just for our galaxy, and doing the same math on the lowest estimate for stars in the Milky Way (100 billion), we’d estimate that there are 1 billion Earth-like planets and 100,000 intelligent civilizations in our galaxy.
  •  Our sun is relatively young in the lifespan of the universe. There are far older stars with far older Earth-like planets, which should in theory mean civilizations far more advanced than our own. As an example, let’s compare our 4.54 billion-year-old Earth to a hypothetical 8 billion-year-old Planet X.

(I told you this was big.)  The technology and knowledge of a civilization only 1,000 years ahead of us could be as shocking to us as our world would be to a medieval person. A civilization 1 million years ahead of us might be as incomprehensible to us as human culture is to chimpanzees. And Planet X is 3.4 billion years ahead of us.  You, of course, can see where we are going here.

If Planet X has a similar story to Earth, let’s look at where their civilization would be today (using the orange time-span as a reference to show how huge the green time-span is):

TIME-SPAN

Scientific endeavor has categorized three distinct possibilities relative to possible civilizations. These are as follows:

  • Type I Civilization has the ability to use all of the energy on their planet. We’re not quite a Type I Civilization, but we’re close (Carl Sagan created a formula for this scale which puts us at a Type 0.7 Civilization).
  • Type II Civilization can harness all of the energy of their host star. Our feeble Type I brains can hardly imagine how someone would do this.
  • AType III Civilization blows the other two away, accessing powers comparable to that of the entire Milky Way galaxy.  If this level of advancement sounds hard to believe, remember Planet X above and their 3.4 billion years of further development. If a civilization on Planet X was similar to ours and was able to survive all the way to Type III level, the natural thought is that they’d probably have mastered inter-stellar travel by now, possibly even colonizing the entire galaxy.

There is no answer to Fermi’s Paradox.  But there may be several theories.

  • Explanation Group 1: There are no signs of higher (Type II and III) civilizations because there are no higher civilizations in existence.  We are Rare!
  • We are the very FIRST intelligent civilization in our universe.  (This sounds somewhat impossible given the age of the universe.)
  • Type II and III intelligent civilizations are out there and there are logical reasons why we might not have heard from them.
    • Super-intelligent life could very well have already visited Earth, but before we were here.
    • The galaxy has been colonized, but we just live in some desolate rural area of the galaxy.
    • The entire concept of physical colonization is a hilariously backward concept to a more advanced species.
    • There are scary predator civilizations out there, and most intelligent life knows better than to broadcast any outgoing signals and advertise their location.
    • There’s only one instance of higher-intelligent life—a “super-predator” civilization (like humans are here on Earth)—who is far more advanced than everyone else and keeps it that way by exterminating any intelligent civilization once they get past a certain level.
    • There’s plenty of activity and noise out there, but our technology is too primitive and we’re listening for the wrong things. (I personally like this theory.)
    • We are receiving contact from other intelligent life, but the government is hiding it. (Our government is so big and so inept they could not keep this secret.)
    • Higher civilizations are aware of us and observing us (AKA the “Zoo Hypothesis”).
    • Higher civilizations are here, all around us. But we’re too primitive to perceive them.
    • We’re completely wrong about our reality.

I truly think this is fascinating and I do believe there is life in the universe.  Intelligent life—we can only hope.


Wonder how difficult it would be to land a mosquito on a speeding bullet?  What do you think?  Well, that’s just about the degree of difficulty in launching, navigating and landing the PHILAE spacecraft on the comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko.  Like all comets, Churyumov-Gerasimenko is named after its discoverers.

THE DISCOVERY:

It was first observed in 1969, when several astronomers from Kiev visited the Alma-Ata Astrophysical Institute in Kazakhstan to conduct a survey of comets.  Comet 67P is one of numerous short period comets which have orbital periods of less than 20 years and a low orbital inclination. Since their orbits are controlled by Jupiter’s gravity, they are also called Jupiter Family comets.  These comets are believed to originate from the Kuiper Belt, a large reservoir of small icy bodies located just beyond Neptune. As a result of collisions or gravitational perturbations, some of these icy objects are ejected from the Kuiper Belt and fall towards the Sun.

When they cross the orbit of Jupiter, the comets gravitationally interact with the massive planet. Their orbits gradually change as a result of these interactions until they are eventually thrown out of the Solar System or collide with another planet or the Sun.  Actually, the favored target for Rosetta was the periodic comet 46P/Wirtanen, but, after the launch was delayed, another regular visitor to the inner Solar System, 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, was selected as a suitable replacement.

THE MISSION:

Philae (/ˈfli/ or /ˈfl/) is a robotic device designed and launched by the European Space Agency .  The mission was called Rosetta. In November 1993, the International Rosetta Mission was approved as a Cornerstone Mission in ESA’s Horizons 2000 Science Program.  Rosetta’s industrial team involved more than 50 contractors from 14 European countries and the United States. The prime spacecraft contractor is Astrium Germany. Major subcontractors are Astrium UK (spacecraft platform), Astrium France (spacecraft avionics) and Alenia Spazio (assembly, integration and verification).

The duration of travel was more than ten years after departing Earth. (Now do you see the complexity?  It’s a “tough putt” to land a small object on a rapidly moving object and after a ten-year launch.)  The Rosetta spacecraft is a work of engineering art in itself. It’s basically a large aluminum box measuring 2.8 x 2.1 x 2.0 meters with scientific instruments mounted on ‘top’ of the box forming the Payload Support Module while the subsystems are on the base or the Bus Support Module.

On one side of the orbiter is a 2.2-metre diameter communications dish with a steerable high-gain antenna. The Lander itself is attached to the opposite face.

Two enormous solar panel ‘wings’ extend from the sides. These wings, each 32 square meters in area, have a total span of about 32 meters tip to tip. Each assembly comprises five panels, and both may be rotated +/-180 degrees to catch the maximum amount of sunlight. A digital photograph of the Rosetta is given as follows:

CONFIGURATION OF ROSETTA

On 12 November 2014, the probe achieved the first-ever soft landing on a comet nucleus. Its instruments obtained the first images from a comet’s surface. PHILEA is tracked and operated from the European Space Operations Centre (ESOC) in Darmstadt, Germany.  Several of the instruments on PHILEA made the first direct analysis of a comet, sending back data that will be analyzed to determine the composition of the surface.

The Lander is named after the Philae obelisk, which bears a bilingual inscription and was used along with the Rosetta Stone to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphics.  A very condensed version of the mission is given by the JPEG below:

THE MISSION

An Ariane 5G+ rocket carrying the Rosetta spacecraft and PHILAE Lander  was launched from French Guiana on 2 March 2004, and travelled for 3,907 days (10.7 years) to reach the target–Churyumov–Gerasimenko. Unlike a Deep Impact probe, PHILAE is not an impactor. Some of the instruments on the Lander were used for the first time as autonomous systems during the Mars flyby on 25 February 2007.   One camera system returned images while the Rosetta instruments were powered down, while one system took measurements of the Martian magnetosphere. Most of the other instruments need contact with the surface for analysis and stayed offline during the flyby. An optimistic estimate of mission length following touchdown was “four to five months”.

PHILAE CONFIGURATION:

Components of PHILAE are as follows:

SPACECRAFT COMPONENTS

A digital photograph of the Lander with the basic instrument packages is given below.

PHILAE LANDER CONFIGURATION

RESULTS:

The results of the landing and the investigation are striking.  The comet’s surface, as Nicolas Thomas of the University of Bern has discovered, is surprisingly complex. It has 19 distinct regions, characterized by features such as pits, wide depressions and smooth, dust-covered plains. It even sports things that look like sand dunes.

The surface is also, according to Fabrizio Capaccioni of the National Institute of Astrophysics  in Rome, drier than expected and rich in organic compounds. That may excite those who wonder how the chemicals needed for life’s development arrived on Earth. The comet’s interior, meanwhile, says Holger Sierks of the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, in Göttingen, Germany, has only half the density of water. It is therefore probably porous and fluffy. And it ejects jets of material into space particularly from the neck that connects the two halves of the comet’s peculiar dumbbell shape.

The reason for that shape, though, remains a mystery. Possibly, Dr Sierks speculates, Churyumov-Gerasimenko is made up of two comets which have collided and joined together. Determining the truth of this will require further investigation.  A depiction of the comets configuration is given as follows:

THE COMET ITSELF

CONCLUSIONS:

Number one—we know now that navigation and impact can be accomplished.  With that being the case, maybe mining the subterranian riches for minerals might be possible for a great number of comets.  One greater “find” might be adding one piece to the puzzle as to whether or not there is life other places than Earth.  We are just becoming able to investigate that possibility with marvelous devices such as Rosetta and PHILAE.  Time will tell.

As always, I welcome your comments.

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