Thursday, August 31, 2006

Space News

NASA has selected Lockheed Martin to be the prime contractor to build the Orion spacecraft, the next generation vehicle that is supposed to replace the shuttle and return human beings to the Moon. The NASA website coverage is much the same as the initial press release, but more details will undoubtedly come out. Lockheed Martin beat a combined Northrop/Boeing consortium to get the Orion contract. The contract is initially worth $3.9 billion USD, with possible additional options for another $3.7 billion USD.

Interesting to note that all of Lockheed Martin's space expertise has been related to unmanned, robotic missions. It's the other guys who have the experience building manned space vehicles -- Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, and the LEM were all built by companies purchased by Northrop or Boeing.

Since the last Apollo astronauts left the Moon in 1972, not much lunar exploration has occurred, and all of it by unmanned orbiters or landers. Between 1973 to 1976, the Soviet Union sent several of their Luna probes, one of which was a successful sample return mission.

Due to a certain amount of "been there, done that" thinking, there was a hiatus of 14 years where no active lunar research happened. It was not until the 1990s that spacecraft returned to the Moon, starting with the Japanese Hiten in 1990. The Americans sent Clementine (1994) and Lunar Prospector (1998-1999) -- both mapping missions, with Lunar Prospector having an additional objective to search for water ice at the lunar poles.

Dr. Alan Binder was the Principal Investigator for the Lunar Prospector mission. I met him at the Apogee Books table at the Worldcon last week in Anaheim. Dr. Binder is highly critical of NASA and its contractors -- he has written a near future science fiction disaster novel -- Moon Quake -- to illustrate what he feels are NASA's shortcomings.

The Europeans sent SMART-1 to the Moon in 2003. The SMART-1 probe was a platform to test new technology developed by the European Space Agency. Chief among these was an ion engine, which SMART-1 used to place itself on a spiral trajectory to the Moon over the course of a year. Since 2004, SMART-1 has been in a polar orbit over the Moon, conductiong a photographic reconnaissance. Over the last two years, its fuel reserves have diminshed, and shortly the spacecraft will be unable to manuever. Therefore, ESA intends to crash SMART-1 into Lacus Excellentiae this weekend, on Sunday September 3, around 0200 EDT. It is hoped that the crash can be monitored from earth with telescopes, which will allow some information to be obtained on lunar surface composition. Depending on conditions, the light intensity of the crash may range from magnitude 7 (visible with binoculars/small telescopes) to magnitude 15 (forget trying to see this with anything except a really big telescope at a major observatory).

The next item of space news is the upcoming launch, by mid-September, of the first woman space tourist -- Anousheh Ansari, an Iranian-born U.S. entrepreneur who is traveling to the International Space Station. She will go up in a Soyuz TMA-9 spacecraft from Baikonur, with ISS Expedition 14 -- cosmonaut Mikhail Tyurin and U.S. astronaut Miguel Lopez-Alegria. Ten days later, she returns with Expedition 13 -- Pavel Vinogradov and Jeff Williams, who have been on the ISS since April 1.

Ansari and her husband, Amir, co-founded the Texas-based Telecom Technologies, Inc. They were major donors to the X-Prize, which is why it was called the Ansari X-Prize. Anousheh Ansari is following in the footsteps of space tourists Dennis Tito, Mark Shuttleworth and Greg Olsen, other millionaires who also traveled to the International Space Station aboard Russian spacecraft. Ansari's contract prevents her from discussing her trip's cost, but in an interview, she noted previous space tourists have paid some $20 million USD for each of their flights.

For two million bucks a day, Ms. Ansari and all those who come after her need better accommodations -- like the space hotel complex that Bigelow Aerospace want to eventually put up into space, and whose precursor is currently undergoing testing.

For those of us who are less well heeled, our only hope is for the price to drop. The first seeds of that hope may very well be with the proposal by Planetspace, to build a spaceport in Cape Breton (the same latitude as Kazahkstan). Their objective is to get a piece of the space tourism business, as well as resupply contracts for the ISS. If it works, there is the Canadian gateway to outer space...

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Worldcon 2006

We are at LACon IV, the 64th World Science Fiction Convention, here at the Anaheim Convention Center in the suburbs of Los Angeles. This has been a pretty low key event for us. I haven't been to many program events, but it has been a great opportunity to see friends.

The highlight so far is captured in this photograph which shows (left to right) Karl Schroeder, me, and Jean-Pierre Normand, taken at the Edge Publishers table in the Dealer's Room. Karl is seated behind a copy of his short story collection The Engine of Recall, for which Jean-Pierre did the cover art.

UPDATE: The 2006 Hugo Awards were given out on Saturday night. This is a partial list:

Best Novel - Robert Charles Wilson for Spin from Tor Books -- a well deserved victory, and doubly sweet since Bob Wilson is from Toronto (although he now lives on the West Coast)

Best Novella - Connie Willis for Inside Job, published in Asimov's January 2005

Best Novellette - Peter S. Beagle for Two Hearts, published in F&SF October/November 2005

Best Short Story - David D. Levine for Tk'tk'tk, published in Asimov's Asimov's 2005

Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form - Serenity (Universal Pictures/Mutant Ennemy, Inc.) Written and Directed by Joss Whedon

John Scalzi won the Campbell Award for Best New Writer, in his first year of eligibility. Again, well deserved. Note - if Scalzi is an A-list blogger, then I most likely don't even make the scale!

Someone else will undoubtedly put the full list up soon, but these are the highlights.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Pluto - A Planet No Longer

At the IAU conference in Prague, Czechoslovakia this week, astronomers voted to reclassify Pluto into a new category of solar system object -- a dwarf planet. This class of objects would include Pluto, Sedna, Quaoar, and the recently discovered 2003 UB313 (Xena).

While I understand why it happened, I am sorry that astronomers reached this particular decision. The reaction that I most like is the bumper sticker from Cafe Press that says "Honk If Pluto Is Still A Planet".

Pluto was discovered by Clyde Tombaugh in 1930, and for the last 75 years, has been part of the cultural consciousness of what defines the Solar System. It will be a while before popular culture catches up to the new definition.

Something similar happened in the nineteenth century. Ceres was discovered on January 1, 1801, and was declared to be a new planet. But it was soon realized that Ceres was the first of many similar objects. By the 1850s, astronomers had defined and named that new class of solar system objects -- asteroids -- and relegated Ceres, Pallas, Vesta, and all the other small objects discovered between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter to be members of this new group.

In the current view, Pluto was the first trans-Neptunian dwarf planet discovered. As technology -- both optical and sensor -- improved after the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope, more of these trans-Neptunian Kuiper Belt objects were found, and the current view is that there may well be thousands. Hence, the need to redefine and recategorize.

Regardless of the arguments and quibbling of astronomers, the New Horizons space probe continues on its way to Pluto. Launched on 19 January 2006 from Cape Canaveral, New Horizons crossed the Moon's orbit before midnight that day, aimed for a Jupiter flyby in February 2007 and ultimately, a flyby of the Pluto/Charon dwarf planet system in July of 2015. When that is completed, the initial reconnaissance of the major bodies in the Solar System, as known in the twentieth century, will be completed.