Sunday, January 6, 2008

Will an asteroid impact with Mars?

The risk that an asteroid will hit Mars on 30 January has dropped to 1 in 10,000, essentially ruling out an impact, NASA researchers say.

The chance that 2007 WD5 could have hit Mars highlighted the risk that a similar space rock could one day slam into Earth.

NASA says that within a few years, it should find 90% of potentially dangerous asteroids larger than 1 kilometre across. But smaller space rocks such as 2007 WD5 may go undetected until shortly before a possible impact, meaning the only recourse would be to evacuate any populated areas that appeared to lie in its path.

I sure hope so.

This is very unscientific, but the way I look at it, if it crashes into Mars, it cannot hit the Earth. If it misses Mars, which is more probable at the moment, then it becomes or continues to be another near Earth object that can cause us trouble in the future.

Observations of the asteroid between Dec. 29 and Jan. 2 allowed astronomers to slightly lower the space rock's odds of striking Mars to about 3.6 percent (down from 3.9), giving the object a 1 in 28 chance of hitting the planet, according to Tuesday report from NASA's Near Earth-Object program office at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

More observations may further reduce the asteroid's impact chances to nil, NEO officials said. The space rock's refined course stems from observations by astronomers at New Mexico Tech's Magdalena Ridge Observatory.

But if WD5 does smack into Mars, some astronomers have a fair idea of what havoc it may spawn. The likely strike zone would be near the equator, but to the north of the current position of NASA's Opportunity rover at Victoria Crater, NASA officials have said.

Mark Boslough, a collision dynamics expert at New Mexico's Sandia National Laboratory, said the atmosphere at Mars' surface is similar to that of Earth at an altitude of 12 miles (20 km). Some space rocks that target Earth explode under the pressure created as they stream into our atmosphere. But they tend not to explode until much below the 12-mile mark.

"So this won't be an airburst," Boslough said. "It will either hit the ground intact and make a single crater, or break up and generate a cluster of craters."

NASA's Near Earth Object Program has ruled out the possibility of a collision between the Earth and asteroid 2004MN4 (Apophis) for April 13, 2029. Well if you look at the projected trajectory of this asteroid around that date, it looks a little close for comfort for me. It will certainly make for some exciting nighttime viewing as it streaks across the sky.

2007 WD5 (the rock hading for Mars) doesn't even show up on the list of Current Impact Risks. Of that list, only one asteroid is listed with a rating that "merits careful monitoring". 2007VK184 has an impact probability of 0.00038 and that isn't until sometime from 2048 - 2057.

Even with no impact probability, I do think it would be one of those really cool science things to see this asteroid crash into Mars and on less rock in the Solar System is probably a good thing anyway.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Needed: Private Businesses for Space Expansion

NASA is looking for private companies to help us return to the moon.

It's about time!

I have felt for a very long time that the only legitimate way to grow the human presence in space is through privatization. Unfortunately, humans in general and Americans in particular seem to like to repeat the same mistakes several times before we learn from them.

In the 1970's the USA sent several expeditions to the moon. Much attention is placed on the six actual moon landings plus Apollo 13. In actuality, there were many missions to the moon to both land on its surface and to orbit it. The Soviet Luna program was the first to fly-by, orbit and soft-land on the moon. The US Pioneer program showed how difficult it was to actually get to the moon from a launch from Earth, and the Ranger program provided photographic reconnaissance while crashing at high speed as intended (source: Wikipedia). And several Apollo missions that orbited the moon set the stage for the landing of Apollo 11 and the first humans on the Moon.

After all the success of the Apollo it was suddenly dropped. The Space Shuttle and exploration of low Earth orbit was the way to go. Where NASA failed is that it completely shut down the Apollo program to pursue the Space Shuttle. The big claim is the cost but the NASA budget is such a small fraction of our GDP that I just really don't buy that.

Now we are once again abandoning the Shuttle to move forward. In business you always ensure that the next generation is on place before you scuttle the existing technology. To do otherwise is to quickly cease to exist. When we abandon the space shuttle we will also, by default give up much control of the space station.

Now to my point for this post.
NASA is in the market for commercial relationships and private capital as it gears up for its next manned missions to the moon.

"That would make our life a lot easier," said Neil Woodward, acting director of NASA's Exploration Systems Mission Directorate.

The U.S. space agency is hoping to return to the moon in 2019 or 2020 and has longer range plans to send humans to Mars after that.

"If somebody says 'I have this really great way to be able to extract water ice from lunar regolith (lunar rocks) that I've developed on my own dime' we would be interested," Woodward said.

"If we could be in a commercial relationship with somebody who has the capability that's fine because in many cases they can do it for less money than we can," he told Reuters on the sidelines of a space development conference in Dallas.

We need to look at all space exploration commercially. One of the outcomes and justifications of the space program have been products that can only be produced or can be have better quality by being produced in the microgravity of space. Pharmaceuticals, specialty electronics, etc can be produced in space potentially better than on the planet. Let's open up the Space station for commercial scientific activity along with academic science. Right now space costs are astronomical - pun intended - with a private trip to the space station costing right at $20 million which has to be paid to the Russians.

What is wrong with space tourism? What is wrong with high tech industry on the space station? Why shouldn't we find private ways to make money to support space travel. Grow near Earth space travel in the private sector and leave NASA to expand the outer reaches of the universe and concentrate on pure space research.

It seems NASA is becoming more open to this idea. NASA actively supported Space Ship 1 and its continued development to Virgin Galactic's Space ship 2. Other private launch companies are exploring the idea to provide private trips to the edges of the atmosphere. Other private ventures include contests and funding for the development of the Space Elevator, development of a new glove for increased dexterity in space and water and oxygen from Moon Regolith (moon rocks).

These challenges can provide from $250,000 up to $2,000,000 to the successful applicant. And the challenges are open to all of us. Any company or individual with a technology that can meet the requirements of the challenge can submit their proposal and be eligible for the prize.

We need to grow space exploration and space activity because humanity can benefit through real business opportunities that create jobs, new medical solutions, new technologies, and expand the reach and presence of the human race.

And we cannot forget that it is really cool.