Category Archives: space

Sending SHAMU to look for alien life

Researchers want to send SHAMU into space to search for alien life. SHAMU in this case is not an orca, but a Submersible Holographic Astrobiology Microscope with Ultraresolution. Caltech and the NASA Jet Propulsion Lab are leading the development of the device, with collaboration from the University of Washington on microbiology and oceanography aspects of the project. Max Showalter, a UW graduate student in oceanography and astrobiology, gave an interesting talk about SHAMU Monday at Town Hall Seattle. The talk was titled, “Finding Life When the Trail Goes Cold.”

Max Showalter

Max Showalter.

The target for the hunt for alien life is Jupiter’s moon Europa, which has a global ocean.

“That’s really significant when we’re looking for life in our solar system and outer space in general, because everywhere that we’ve found water on Earth we’ve found life, usually in the microbial form,” Showalter explained. The big challenge is that Europa is, on average, about 390 million miles away.

“Since it’s so far from the Sun, it’s really cold on Europa, and it has this crust of frozen ocean on top of it, kind of like our own Arctic Ocean, for example, except it’s eight kilometers thick,” Showalter said. “The question is, when we get to Europa, how do we get through that ice, or can we find a sample of life in that ice?”

You may think that ice is inhospitable, but Showalter said that a lot of things live in arctic ice. Algae have been found in deep cores of ice; enough sunlight can get through to drive photosynthesis. Algae and bacteria can live in brine veins, pockets of salt water within the ice.

This is where SHAMU comes in. The microscope creates a hologram to look for bacteria swimming in an icy water sample. It uses a laser beam split into two parts. One part serves as the control or reference part, the other is able to track changes within the sample.

SHAMU in Greenland

SHAMU at work in Greenland. Photo: Caltech.

“You bring those together in the computer and you reconstruct the image and get this 3-D image of what’s going on in this microscope,” Showalter said. “You can think of it as this tiny little cube of liquid that we can now see bacteria swimming around in.”

Showalter pointed out that we can be fooled by fossils, so being able to track something in motion is a key to detecting life.

“That’s an unambiguous biosignature,” he said, but added that multiple converging lines of evidence are needed in order to declare the detection of life. It’s good to see motion, but chemical experiments revealing organics would really be helpful, too.

They’ve tested SHAMU in the lab and found that they could track bacteria swimming around in water as cold as eight degrees fahrenheit; colder than that and the activity pretty much shuts down. Last spring Showalter was part of a team that did a field test of SHAMU in Nuuk, Greenland and they were successful there, too. Ultimately they’d like to take the microscope off planet, and Showalter said Europa would be a great target.

“What’s expecially unique about Europa is that in addition to this icy crust it has geysers on the surface, and these geysers are coming from local hot spots inside the ocean and thinner spots in this icy crust,” he said. This is a big advantage for designing a mission.

“Now we don’t have to worry about drilling through the ice; water is coming to us,” Showalter said. “If we can fly through that and take a sample of that plume, that’s ocean water right there in our hands.”

Europa is not the only place where SHAMU could come in handy. Enceladus, a moon of Saturn, is similar to Europa in that it, too, has an ice-crusted ocean with water geysers. Mars has been found to have some liquid water.

“There are lots of opportunities for us to use this microscope in outer space in addition to places on Earth,” Showalter said. “Hopefully the smallest organisms alive will help us be able to find the answer to one of the biggest questions of humankind: are we alone in the solar system?”

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Astronaut talk, Astronomy on Tap this week

We’ll hear from South Korea’s first astronaut this week and celebrate the first birthday of Astronomy on Tap Seattle.

Astronaut Soyeon Yi

soyeonyi_calendarSoyeon Yi became South Korea’s first astronaut when she flew with a Russian crew on Soyuz to the International Space Station in 2008. Yi, who retired from the astronaut business in 2014 and now lives in Puyallup, will give a talk at 2 p.m. Saturday, March 26 at the Museum of Flight. Yi’s appearance is part of the museum’s annual Women Fly! event for junior- and senior-high girls who are interested in aviation and aerospace careers.

Happy birthday to Astronomy on Tap Seattle

AOT Seattle March 23In March 2015 Astronomy on Tap Seattle started bringing us beer and astronomy on a monthly basis. They’ll celebrate a year in business with a big bash at 7 p.m. Wednesday, March 23 at Bad Jimmy’s Brewing Company in Ballard. A handful of mini-talks will highlight astronomical discoveries and advances of the past year. You’ll also be able to buy a special Astronomy on Tap Seattle beer glass and fill it with deluxe, barrel-aged Big Sipper, an imperial Scotch ale that was named by popular vote of AoT participants. Check out our article and podcast from earlier this month about Astronomy on Tap Seattle’s first year.

Rose City

The Rose City Astronomers will hold their monthly meeting at 7:30 p.m. Monday, March 21 at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry in Portland. Prof. James Schombert of the University of Oregon will take on the question of whether the universe is infinite, and how the latest observations are helping find answers.

LIGO lecture

A century after Einstein predicted gravitational waves, scientists with LIGO found them. Dr. Muzammil A. Arain, one of the authors of the paper that announced the discovery, will give a lecture at 6:30 p.m. Monday, March 21 at Building 27 on the Microsoft campus in Redmond. The talk will cover the science behind the LIGO detectors, the basics of gravitational waves, and the data processing techniques employed by LIGO that enabled gravitational wave detection. Registration is $5 and can be done online.

Art on the Moon

NASA photo.

NASA photo.

The Giant Steps art exhibition and contest continues Saturday and Sunday at Seattle’s King Street Station, where it will be open from noon until 6 p.m. both days. The event challenged students, artists, engineers, architects, designers, and other space enthusiasts to imagine and propose art projects on the surface of the Moon. Their submissions will be on display at the station weekends through April 3. Admission is $10.

 

Up in the sky

Jupiter is just two weeks past opposition and well placed for viewing these days. The King of Planets will pass close to the Moon on Tuesday. The Sky This Week from Astronomy magazine and This Week’s Sky at a Glance from Sky & Telescope have other observing highlights for the week.

 

 

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Seattle’s place in the future of space

Some of the top thinkers about the future of space visited Seattle this week as part of the U.S.-Japan Space Forum. The forum, supported by the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Foundation and the Japan-United States Friendship Commission, is a standing committee of policy experts who meet regularly to sort out the challenges and opportunities for the two countries and more. The group had two days of private meetings in town, followed by a public symposium Wednesday at the Museum of Flight. Saadia Pekkanen, a professor at the Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington and a co-chair of the forum, said there was good reason to bring the discussion to Seattle.

Saadia Pekkanen

Saadia Pekkanen is a UW professor and co-chair of the U.S.-Japan Space Forum. She moderated a panel discussion Wednesday at the Museum of Flight. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

“Seattle is in many ways the new hub for space policy, bringing together a combination of billionaire interest, technical workforce talents, and also shared passion on the part of educational institutions like the Museum of Flight to take and advance our understanding of space,” Pekkanen said. She added that space is no longer dominated just by governments, and that the list of important partners includes longtime contractors such as Boeing and all of the newcomers in commercial space as well.

“We are also dealing with a world that is no longer just dominated by Western players,” Pekkanen said. “The most ambitious space players, I would say, are actually found in Asia—not only ambitious but also very competent.”

With so many countries and companies getting into the space business we have to examine our old assumptions.

“We can no longer take the rules of the game—the normative, the legal, the policy, and the regulatory frameworks that have really shaped global space affairs—for granted,” Pekkanen said. Shaping that discussion, she said, is a big part of what the U.S.-Japan Forum is all about.

Security challenges

Yamakawa

Hiroshi Yamakawa, professor from Kyoto University. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

Roy Kamphausen, the vice president of the National Bureau of Asian Research, spelled out six challenges for space and security in the Asia-Pacific region. These include China’s space expansion, conflict with North Korea, the evolving and complex relationship between China and Russia, Southeast Asia’s reluctance to act on military and security questions, and changing priorities and resources for the United States and Japan.

Hiroshi Yamakawa, a professor from Kyoto University, noted that space debris and possible threats to assets in space also present challenges. Yamakawa presented a history of collaboration in space between the U.S. and Japan, which he said goes back more than 50 years.

“It’s a very long and sustainable cooperation since the beginning of the space age,” Yamakawa said, noting Japan had recently extended its commitment to work with the International Space Station until at least 2024. “I hope that this cooperation will last at least until 3016.”

Collaboration in space

Collaboration in space comes down to pretty practical matters. For one, few countries have the funds to go it alone in space any more.

Ron Lopez

Ron Lopez of Boeing. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

“This backdrop of real threats, favorable policy environment, and budgetary constraints creates an environment that necessitates greater collaboration in space and defense,” said Ron Lopez, director of Asia-Pacific business development for Boeing. “We’re talking about the bringing together of superior technologies with skills and know-how to develop value-added, cost-effective solutions.”

“The purpose of collaboration is really to do more with less,” Lopez added.

Collaboration is not a new idea. Shoichiro Asada of Mitsubishi Heavy Industries pointed out that U.S. and Japanese companies have already worked together on missile defense systems, jet fighters and engines, and other systems.

 

Shoichiro Asada of MHI. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

Shoichiro Asada of Mitsubishi Heavy Industries. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

“Until now, industries in the U.S. and Japan have had a good relationship in space and defense,” Asada said. He had five suggestions about how that could be made even more productive. These include promotion of collaboration between governments and of an open-door policy for government procurement, harmonizing of procurement rules and of requirements and specifications for projects, and standardizing parts, which he admits can be a challenge when few of certain items are produced.

John Mittleman, expert on maritime domain awareness with the U.S. Naval Research Lab, gave an interesting presentation about the huge quantities of data available, especially from small satellites. We can pinpoint practically every ship at sea as we work on security considerations. Information about what is happening on the oceans can also inform us about other challenges, such as resource issues, energy, and climate change. There’s so much data that Mittleman says machines are going to have to do a lot of the heavy thinking.

John Mittleman

John Mittleman of the Navy Research Lab. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

“Machine learning embedded in big-data analytics will rival human all-source analysis, with one important distinction: the volume of information they can handle will far surpass the speed and capacity of the world’s entire corps of intelligence analysts,” Mittleman said. “Very useful information can be pulled from massive troves of data, whether the data comes form satellites, drones, every car on the highway, every smart phone in your pocket, or anywhere else.”

Can computers really think and understand? Mittleman said the premise of the 2015 film Ex Machina is not all that far-fetched.

“Machine learning can and does discover very complex relationships, hidden relationships, that look an awful lot like human intuition,” he said. “We’re beginning to see real, live, effective understanding coming from the conjunction of persistent, multi-source data with high-speed, high-volume data analytics.”

There’s a fascinating and important future ahead in space, and Seattle people and companies will have a big part to play.

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Astronaut Wilson blazing trails to space

It’s interesting that so many people involved in space and astronomy can point to a particular moment when they became interested in the field as a career. For astronaut Stephanie Wilson it happened when she was about 13 years old.

Stephanie Wilson

Astronaut Stephanie Wilson spoke about her inspiration for pursuing a career in aerospace during a talk to participants in the Michael P. Anderson Memorial Aerospace Program Saturday at the Museum of Flight. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

“I was given a school assignment to interview somebody who worked in an interesting career field,” Wilson recalled. “I was interested in astronomy at the time, so I interviewed an astronomy professor at Williams College.”

Wilson said she was fascinated by the opportunities to travel, do research, and teach to which a career in astronomy might lead.

“That was my first interest in space and my introduction to science,” Wilson said.

Wilson spoke Saturday at the Museum of Flight in a presentation to the Michael P. Anderson Memorial Aerospace Program. The program, named after the Washington-native astronaut who died in the space shuttle Columbia tragedy in 2003, aims to provide inspiration and role models for students who are underrepresented in aerospace.

“It really started a thought process about what other opportunities were available and what were some other ways that I could function in aerospace,” Wilson said of her talk with the astronomy professor. “I also had an inerest in working with my hands and understanding how devices are put together, so I did decide to study engineering in college.”

Statue of Mike Anderson

This statue of astronaut Michael P. Anderson is outside the Museum of Flight in Seattle. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

She earned degrees in engineering science at Harvard and in aerospace engineering at the University of Texas. Wilson held jobs in structural dynamics, robotics, and spacecraft attitude control before becoming part of the astronaut class of 1996. She was the second African-American woman to fly in space, going on three shuttle missions to the International Space Station. During her presentation Wilson showed video of highlights of her STS-131 mission in 2010. She has logged 42 days in space, and hopes to go again. She said she’d especially enjoy a longer mission during which she could spend six months on the ISS.

Michael Anderson was part of the 1995 astronaut class, and Wilson met and flew with him during her early days with NASA. She said that gives her some extra affinity for his namesake aerospace program’s goals.

“I really hope that people see that, as a woman and as an engineer, I tried to worked hard in that field, I did the best that I could to advance those fields,” Wilson said. “I also hope that people see that I tried to make a path so that people could follow in those footsteps and continue on their work. I hope that young people will see that anything is possible.”

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Occultation, meteor shower highlight week’s events

An occultation of Venus, a meteor shower, and a couple of talks about the nature of light are the highlights of this week’s Seattle Astronomy calendar.

Let there be light

The co-authors of the new book Coloring the Universe: An Insider’s Look at Making Spectacular Images of Space (University of Alaska Press, 2015) have three appearances set in the Seattle area over the next couple of weeks. In the book the authors describe how large, professional telescopes work, what scientists learn with them, and how the scopes are used to make color images. Coloring the Universe is filled with brilliant images of deep space as well as an insider’s perspective by the people who make them.

Megan Watzke, press officer for NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, will give a talk titled “The Unseen Power of Light” at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, December 8 at Town Hall Seattle. Watzke will explore the many, often surprising ways light interacts with us and shapes the universe we live in. She’ll also share images from another of her books, Light: The Visible Spectrum and Beyond (Black Dog & Leventhal, 2015).

Travis Rector, professor of astrophysics at the University of Alaska Anchorage, will make a presentation about Coloring the Universe at 7 p.m. Thursday, December 10 at Ada’s Technical Books on Capitol Hill. Rector’s talk will focus on what professional astronomers do, and what they don’t do, when making spectacular images of the heavens.

Both Rector and Watzke will appear next Wednesday, December 16 at the monthly meeting of the Seattle Astronomical Society.

Moon occults Venus

If we get a little break in the clouds this morning we’ll have a chance to watch the Moon occult Venus! Get out a little before 8 a.m. Monday, Dec. 7 and you’ll have a chance to watch the Moon move in front of Venus. You may need binoculars; Venus can be awfully tough to spot in the daylight. Universe Today has a good article about how to view this event.

The week’s other viewing highlight is the Geminid meteor shower, which will peak Sunday and Monday, December 13 and 14. This article from EarthSky.org has everything you want to know about this meteor shower.

This week’s Sky at a Glance from Sky & Telescope includes other observing highlights for the week.

What’s next for humans in space?

Would you love to see humans walk on Mars? The Enterprise Forum Northwest will host a discussion about the challenges of going to Mars at the Impact Hub Seattle at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, December 9. A panel will discuss the technological hurdles, biomedical risks, competing priorities, cost, and other factors involved. The discussion will be moderated by Alan Boyle, aerospace and science editor for GeekWire, and panelists will include former astronaut Dorothy Metcalf-Lindenburger, Aerojet Rocketdyne executive Roger Myers, Chris Lewicki of Planetary Resources, and University of Hawaii professor Kim Binstead.

Tickets for the event are $39 and are available online.

The Seattle Futurist Society will host a discussion of our future in space beginning at 4 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 12 at We Work at the Holyoke Building. Speakers include Kati Rissanen, an independent professional who comes from the academic world of futures studies, and Robert P. Hoyt, CEO & Chief Scientist at Tethers Unlimited Inc.

Tickets are $10 and are available onlne.

Astronomy club events

taslogoTacoma Astronomical Society will hold one of its public nights at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, December 12 at the Fort Steilacoom campus of Pierce College. They will offer a presentation about the Christmas Star. On Bainbridge Island the Battle Point Astronomical Association will offer a planetarium show, Silly Star Wars Xmas Special, beginning at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday. Astronomer Dave Fong will take participants on a journey to places far, far away that could have inspired scenes in Star Wars. It’s free for BPAA members, $2 donation suggested for nonmembers. Both events will have telescopes available for observing if weather permits.

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Museum of Flight receives F-1 engines that launched Apollo

Forty-six years ago today Apollo 12 became the second craft to land people on the Moon. Today the Museum of Flight received an incredible treasure: parts of the Rocketdyne F-1 engines that blasted Apollo into orbit.

Doug King, president of the Museum of Flight, announces the gift of the Apollo F-1 engines at a news conference Nov. 19, 2015. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

Doug King, president of the Museum of Flight, announces the gift of the Apollo F-1 engines at a news conference Nov. 19, 2015. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

The engines were found at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean in 2013 by Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos and his team from Bezos Expeditions. Bezos requested that the engines be donated to the museum and NASA honored that request.

“This is truly a historic day for the museum, for our community,” said Doug King, president and CEO of the Museum of Flight. “I don’t think it’s too grandiose to say for our country and maybe even for humankind.”

“Exhibiting these historic engines not only shares NASA’s storied history, it also helps America educate to innovate,” said NASA administrator Charles Bolden in a news release. “This display of spaceflight greatness can help inspire our next generation of scientists, technologists, engineers and explorers to build upon past successes and create the new knowledge and capabilities needed to enable our journey to Mars.”

Bezos said he became interested in science and exploration as a five-year-old watching Neil Armstrong’s first small step on the Moon.

“You don’t choose your passions; your passions choose you,” he said. Bezos said he thinks about rockets at lot, and one day it occurred to him that it would be great to find and restore those F-1 engines. The engineers who built them were working to send people to the Moon, and few folks at the time were thinking about posterity.

Expendable stuff

“That first stage with these gigantic engines is expendable; it’s supposed to crash into the ocean, that was the whole plan,” Bezos said.

Jeff Bezos

Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos talks about his passion for space and the project to recover the F-1 engines. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

“We’re working on changing that plan,” he continued. “I have this space company called Blue Origin; we’re trying to make reusable rockets because we don’t like throwing the hardware away.”

It took Bezos all of ten minutes of Internet searching to find the coordinates at which NASA said the Apollo 11 first stage rocket crashed. The hunt was on.

“That was going to prove to be the only easy thing about this project,” Bezos laughed. It was an incredibly complicated endeavor. Bezos Expeditions put together a team of more than 60 people who are experts in ocean recovery. They searched some 300 square miles of ocean with side-scanning sonar to find the engines and then pulled them out from under 14,000 feet of seawater, where they’d been at rest for more than 40 years.

The parts were restored at the Kansas Cosmosphere in Hutchinson, Kansas. Much of the damage to the engines was caused not by their high-speed crash into the sea, but by silt and corrosion from four decades in salt water, though the large and highly recognizable bell-shaped nozzle extensions were badly mangled.

Great museum pieces

Geoff Nunn, the adjunct curator for space history at the museum, said the engines that drove Apollo were marvels of engineering.

Geoff Nunn

Geoff Nunn, adjunct curator for space history at the Museum of Flight, talked about what makes the F-1 engines a special artifact. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

“The Rocketdyne F-1 was the largest single-chambered liquid-fueled rocket ever flown,” Nunn said. “Each engine produced over a million and a half pounds of thrust and stood 18 and a half feet tall.”

That’s quite a kick. King said all of the planes in the museum’s entire collection collectively have only half that much thrust. Five F-1s launched each Saturn V.

The first piece unwrapped at the news conference this morning, still in its shrink wrap from Cosmosphere, was an injector plate from one of the Apollo 12 engines.

“The injector plate is really what is key to making the F-1 engine an engine and not just a million and a half pounds of bomb,” Nunn explained. “It’s covered in these minute holes that release fuel and oxidizer in an incredibly precise mixture in order to ensure that the combustion that occurs is smooth and controlled.”

Bezos injector

Bezos talks about the workings of the F-1 engine injector plate. Photo: Greg Scheiderer

Some of the F-1 engine components will go on public display at the museum starting Saturday and will be out until early January. The full collection will be part of a new, permanent exhibit that will open late next year or in early 2017.

For Bezos, finding and restoring artifacts like the F-1 engines is not about looking to the past.

“It’s about today and it’s about the future,” he said. “It’s about building a 21st-century version of the F-1 engine. It’s about building reusable rockets.

“Civilization for many centuries has been getting better and better, and the point of recovering an object like this is to remind us of who we are and what we can do as we move forward as a civilization.”

The video below from Bezos Expeditions tells the tale of the recovery of the F-1 engines from the briny Atlantic.

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Seattle’s Spaceflight Industries flying high

It’s been a whale of a month for Seattle-based space-services company Spaceflight. Since late September the company has purchased a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, announced it will use it to launch a private Israeli mission to the Moon as part of the Lunar XPrize competition, and, most recently, brought a third ground station online to facilitate better communication with the bevy of small satellites it has helped put into space.

Andrews

Jason Andrews is president and CEO of Seattle-based Spaceflight Industries.

“We’ve got a little bit going on,” said Spaceflight president and CEO Jason Andrews in something of an understatement. “It’s fun; what we do is really exciting. Anytime you buy a rocket and send it towards the Moon, how can you not love it?”

Andrews said the industry is really taking off.

“There is this sudden, rapid advancement of commercial space—some people call it new space—and it’s really been brought about in the last three or four years due to improvements in technology and access to space,” he said. “You can finally build spacecraft that are the size of a shoebox that actually do something. With what we’ve been able to advance with our Spaceflight launch business, you can actually get those satellites into space.”

Andrews said Spaceflight is aiming to be a comprehensive, full-service company in that effort.

“We’re really trying to address all parts of the value chain by building the satellite components, building the satellites, helping everyone get to space, and now helping them get their data back from space,” he said.

Spaceflight's newest ground station in New Zealand marks another step toward reaching the company's goal of improving communications for smallsat operators. Photo: Spaceflight Industries.

Spaceflight’s newest ground station in New Zealand marks another step toward reaching the company’s goal of improving communications for smallsat operators. Photo: Spaceflight Industries.

Retrieving the data more quickly and efficiently is why Spaceflight is building a network of ground stations. The new one in Invercargill, New Zealand is the company’s third to go operational, following stations in Tukwila, Wash. and Fairbanks, Alaska. Andrews noted that our mobile telephones work most anywhere we go because the gear is standard and speaks the same technical language. It’s not so for spacecraft, which often use custom equipment. Spaceflight wants to change that.

“What we’re doing is building a series of ground stations over the next three years that uses a standard interface protocol,” Andrews explained. The satellites will use standard radios that can connect to the ground stations easily. “Just like a cell phone data plan, we’ll have a satellite data plan.”

While the ultimate number of stations Spaceflight will build is a bit up in the air, Andrews said they plan to have at least a dozen of them in operation around the globe by 2017.

“They’re strategically located geographically to minimize latency—the time between satellites flying over—and that way we can get customer data back quickly,” he explained. As in most businesses, time is money.

Andrews noted that Spaceflight has launched 80 small satellites to date, and has another 86 penciled in to go up next year. He expects customer demand will continue to increase.

“It’s clearly a revolution, and I think just the beginning of the revolution,” he said.

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