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...

1 comment:

Mick Gordon said...

I had always been interested in the possibilities that mining in space offers. Apparently some returning space mission has bought back grains of molybdenite and meteors have been found to contain grains of peridot.