Category Archives: space

Someone you know will travel in space soon

Leaders of four private, Northwest-based commercial spaceflight companies got together earlier this month at the Museum of Flight to talk about what we will see in their industry in the coming year. While they have some fascinating events on the docket for 2014, the conversation got most interesting when they talked about the not-much-more-distant future.

“I think we will expand out into space faster than people might realize,” predicted Chris Lewicki, president and chief engineer of Planetary Resources, Inc. “It’s less than five years, I think, before everyone in this room will know someone who has been higher than 100 kilometers.”


L-R: Erika Wagner of Blue Origin, Chris Lewicki of Planetary Resources, Roger Myers of Aerojet, and Phil Brzytwa of Spaceflight, Inc. spoke Jan. 18 at the Museum of Flight about the future of space exploration.

Erika Wagner, business development manager of Blue Origin, said the destination is cool, but the passenger list is even better.

“Where we’re going next is more exciting than ever because space and the whole frontier is becoming democratized,” Wagner said. “It’s no longer the realm of billion- or trillion-dollar economy nations, or even of millionaire tourists; it’s getting to the point where everyone in this room can have access to space in their own way.”

Wherever anyone is going Aerojet Rocketdyne is probably helping them get there. Dr. Roger Myers, executive director for advanced in-space programs at the company, noted that “rockets from Redmond” have powered many space missions, including Cassini at Saturn and the New Horizons spacecraft that will arrive at Pluto next year.

“There’s a lot going on in 2014 and beyond,” Myers said. “There’s a great future in this business.”

Myers said that true exploration of space is going to require a variety of rockets, other propulsion systems, and transportation options.

“If we’re going to expand the human economic sphere, if we’re going to become a species that exists beyond low-Earth orbit, we’re going to have to have a transportation infrastructure that mimics what we have on the Earth,” he said.

Aerojet has rocket engines on the recently launched MAVEN spacecraft headed for Mars, and also designed engines for the Orion craft, which is scheduled for an unmanned test flight this year. Blue Origin is busy testing its BE-3 liquid-hydrogen engine. Planetary Resources anticipates the launch of its first ARKYD space telescope this year, thanks in part to a Kickstarter fundraiser last year. While others build rockets, Spaceflight, Inc. is working to get your package delivered to orbit.

Photo (1)“We want to become the or the UPS providing delivery of cargo to space,” said Phil Brzytwa, head of sales and business development for the company. “We want our customers to be able to pay by the seat not pay for the entire launch vehicle.” Spaceflight, Inc. works the details and can send up numerous small satellites, cube-sats, and other smaller projects as part of a single payload, making things less complicated for everyone.

Many folks still find personal spaceflight and asteroid mining to be pretty far-fetched concepts, but Lewicki said we should not be so shocked at the rapid advance of technology.

“One hundred fifty years ago there wasn’t an internal combustion engine, and the idea of a steam-powered train was high-tech, and was getting us rapidly across the countryside faster than a horse could,” he noted. It didn’t take so long to get to horseless carriages and lighter-than-air flying machines. Lewicki doesn’t think affordable space travel and mining the solar system for resources are alien concepts.

“If we can conceive of it we can make it happen,” he said. “There’s nothing in the laws of physics that says these things aren’t possible. It’s just a matter of bit-by-bit finding the best use of them, finding the markets and the economies that drive the need for them, and then making them scalable enough so that everyone can benefit from them.”

“We are living during extremely exciting times, the likes of which will be written about in the history books,” Lewicki added, because “this is the time when our species got off the planet.”


Scanning atmospheres for signs of extraterrestrial life

Giada Arney thinks that life likely exists somewhere besides Earth. Arney, a third-year Ph.D. student in astronomy and astrobiology at the University of Washington, gave a talk at November’s meeting of the Seattle Astronomical Society about the search for the origins of life in the universe.

“Some of us like me who are astrobiologists think it’s likely that life has arisen elsewhere in the cosmos and perhaps elsewhere in our own solar system,” Arney said. “But so far the only evidence we have for life that actually exists is on this singular planet.”

UW planetarium

Ph.D. candidate Giada Arney is planetarium coordinator at the University of Washington, and used the facility, refurbished a couple of years ago, to illustrate her talk about astrobiology. This shot of Earth was part of the talk. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

It’s hard to extrapolate from a single data point, but Arney is on the case. The educated guess that there’s some form of life out there stems from the fact that the raw materials are all over the place. Asteroids, for example, are loaded with water and carbon molecules—and much more.

“We’ve looked at the composition of various types of very carbon-rich asteroids, and we’ve looked at the specific types of carbon molecules that exist in those asteroids,” Arney said. “We found sugars, we found amino acids—the building blocks of proteins in our cells. We found nucleic acids, the building blocks of our DNA.”

“What this suggests is that these building blocks of life are easy for nature to synthesize and they’re cosmically common,” she said.

On top of that, Arney said study of the interstellar medium reveals lots of sugars and alcohols. This had me thinking, “Well, what else do you need?!” Arney said that the significance of these is that they’re the building blocks for amino acids. Astrobiologists have yet to pinpoint amino acids in the interstellar medium—it’s exceedingly difficult to pick out their spectral fingerprints—but Arney bets they’re there.

“This suggests that this complex carbon chemistry, that at least life on Earth requires, is cosmically abundant,” she concluded.

Arney’s research bailiwick is planetary atmospheres, and that’s where astrobiologists are going to look for evidence of life on other planets. There are plenty of potential places to investigate. Arney said that around eight percent of low-mass stars have an Earth-size planet in their habitable zones. She said a recent analysis of Kepler data that put this figure at close to 20 percent came in too high because of what she feels is an overly generous definition of the zone. Even eight percent, though, gives scientists a lot of planets to explore. The ultimate test will involve direct imaging and spectroscopy of the exoplanets’ atmospheres, something we can’t really do yet.

“Once direct-imaging missions become possible, we’re going to look for gases like water vapor and oxygen in the atmospheres of exoplanets,” Arney said. “Maybe that will give us evidence for life on these planets.”

The effort will require use of another rare element: cash.

“It will be a very expensive mission because it’s going to require a very big telescope,” she said, bigger even than Hubble or Webb. “You need to collect a lot of photons in order to measure the spectra of an exoplanet to have a high enough signal-to-noise ratio to be able to confidently say, ‘Hey, there’s oxygen in this planet’s atmosphere.’”

Arney expects life is out there.

“Microbial life is probably common, but the general consensus in the astrobiology community is that complex life and certainly intelligent life is probably remarkably rare,” she concluded.

The search continues.


Samammish astronomer uses video to share the WOW factor

A little girl’s interest in outer space gave Samammish, Wash. amateur astronomer Ted Cook a golden opportunity to combine three of his favorite things: his passion for education, his love for astronomy, and his profession as a photographer and video producer.

When his niece developed an interest in space at a young age, Cook’s sister looked around for educational materials suitable for a youngster. She didn’t find much. Her plan B: “Ask Uncle Ted.”

“I thought if nothing is out there, maybe I can start to put together some stuff and put it out there for kids,” Cook recalled.

He had a bit of a head start. A history buff, Cook already had created a series of videos about Washington state history, animated episodes in which characters Herc, Velocity, and their dog Laika visited people and places from the state’s past.

“I had these characters created, and I had this whole setup, and I thought how about if we move to what I really love, which is astronomy,” Cook said.

Between 2006 and 2008 Ted Cook Productions created three astronomy DVDs, which were sold at museums and planetariums around the country. These three, along with his four state-history disks, are still available for sale on his website. Because of the challenges of producing and distributing physical disks, and the growth of YouTube and other services, he decided to put new astronomy videos online. In addition, this year Cook embarked on an ambitious plan of producing four educational pieces every month, under the banner of “Let’s Explore Astronomy.” Three of them will be videos: one about astronomy history, one about the how-to’s of the hobby, and one about what can be seen in the night sky in that particular month. A fourth piece will be a written recap of astronomy news for the previous month. He’s done about five of each so far.

This month, for example, Cook’s “Andromeda Time-Slip Theater” is taking a look at Mars: Herc and Velocity listen to part of the famed Orson Welles radio drama about a Martian invasion.

“They’re talking about Percival Lowell and the canals, and ‘The War of the Worlds,’ and then what the rovers found,” Cook said. “We look at how we moved from Percival Lowell thinking he’d found canals on Mars to finding there was once water there.” Take a look:

Cook said he aims to make the videos accessible for kids in about 5th or 6th grade, but wants adults to be able to get something out of them, too.

“I wanted to make it so that someone who is just getting into astronomy or wants to know more about it can learn without it being total mathematics,” Cook explained.

Cook hopes to keep the videos free, and is offering them to astronomy clubs around the country to use in their outreach efforts. He’s considering creating accompanying curriculum and hands-on activities that could be used in classrooms or for any youngster who wants to learn more about space. He’s already developed a game that he uses for outreach events with younger kids, in which they can learn about order of the planets and some facts about each one.

Making it a paying enterprise may take some doing. Cook has a couple of sponsors for the videos and may pursue grant funding or other ways to help offset the costs of creating the programs.

It was almost inevitable that Cook would be interested in space.

“My dad worked at the Kennedy Space Center during the Apollo days, so that was my playground when I was a kid,” he said. “I was inspired because I was there. I saw it every day.”

“I was hooked, I knew all of the astronauts’ names,” Cook added.

Cook actually is a rocket scientist; he earned a degree in aerospace engineering at Georgia Tech, but later studied photography at UCLA. He’s been in that business as a shooter and a teacher for some 30 years. But he still maintains a sense of wonder and awe when talking about astronomy and space.

“It is the new frontier, it has the wow factor,” Cook said as he explained his passion for outreach and getting others interested in the hobby, or perhaps in astronomy as a career. “You’re looking at these things going WOW! That’s cool! I think that has a lot to do with it. The people respond because of the wow factor.”

There’s a lovely completed circle in this story. Cook’s niece Delenn Larsen, the little girl who launched him on this trajectory, is now 13 years old and remains interested in space and astronomy. In fact, she is the voice of the character Velocity in the videos!

In addition to educational videos, Ted Cook Productions also offers astronomy tours of New Mexico, a venture on which Cook is teamed with Dr. Alan Hale, the co-discoverer of Comet Hale-Bopp.

You can check out Cook’s videos on YouTube or on the Ted Cook Productions website. Spread the word to the young space nuts in your universe.


PRI ups ante on crowdfunded space telescope project

Planetary Resources, Inc. has upped the ante on its crowdfunded space telescope project. The company says if the campaign raises $2 million it will enhance the project to include exoplanet-hunting capabilities.

ARKYD updateThe Kickstarter campaign was launched less than two weeks ago with a goal to raise $1 million. As of this afternoon more than 9,500 backers had kicked in more than $857,000—including $25 from Seattle Astronomy. It seems a cinch, with 19 days left in the campaign, that they’ll make the original goal. The additional funds under the stretch goal would add exoplanet transit detection capability to the ARKYD telescope by enhancing its stability systems and dedicating scope time to monitor candidate star systems. The upgrade would also allow for better measurement of the spin-properties of asteroids, using the same technique.

“While the ARKYD won’t rival NASA’s $600 million Kepler spacecraft, which may have to end its mission due to a recent equipment failure, the enhanced ARKYD will be a huge step toward important new scientific discoveries enabled by citizen scientists,” said Chris Lewicki, President and Chief Engineer of Planetary Resources, in a company news release.

You can read about the update on the project’s Kickstarter page.


Getting “the kids” interested in astronomy

Much ink, many pixels, and and a great deal of time and energy have been expended of late on the pressing challenge of getting the younger generation interested and participating in astronomy. Astronomy magazine editor Dave Eicher recently blogged on the topic, noting that The Astronomical League devoted a huge chunk of the March issue of its magazine, Reflector, to the topic. Eicher and Astronomy are among the partners in the Astronomy Foundation, a nonprofit organization that aims to spread interest and enthusiasm for the hobby, particularly among generations X and Y.

All of this has me pondering the trajectory of my own interest in astronomy, considering how possible it really is for adults to get young people interested in anything, and wondering if the crisis of disinterest in science in general, and astronomy in particular, is real.

Moon probe sketch

This sketch of a “Moon probe,” probably NASA’s Lunar Orbiter, is in my space scrapbook with other articles from 1966. It was probably my first astronomy “post” at age 8.

The “about” page of Seattle Astronomy notes that I “grew up following Apollo and the race to the moon, and (have) been a space and astronomy buff ever since.” I was 11 years old when humans first walked on the Moon, just old enough to appreciate the adventure and daring of the race to get there, and too young to grasp the geopolitical implications of it all. I kept a scrapbook of clippings about aerospace news, most of them from the Seattle Times or from The Boeing News which my dad brought home from work. I occasionally put some of my own work in the scrapbook. The sketch and explanation of the “Moon probe” at left may well be considered my first space and astronomy “post.” Drawing has obviously never been my strong suit, but the rocket nozzle on top of my probe bears some abstract resemblance to the NASA Lunar Orbiter, so I’m guessing that’s what I was trying to depict. The drawing is in the scrapbook amidst some coverage of the Lunar Orbiter and Surveyor, all from 1966, so this was my work at age eight.

Clearly I was a space nut. There may well have been some adult encouragement along the way. I was subscribed to a series called the “Science Service Science Program” published by Nelson Doubleday. Every month I would receive a new booklet on a science topic. The booklets were cool because they came with color sticker photographs that you licked and pasted into them; maybe the first “interactive” media. Once in a while the series included a plastic model that you could assemble; I recall building a Mercury Redstone rocket. Many of the books were about various topics of space and exploration, as it was the hot topic at the time. I don’t have any of the Science Service books in my possession. They might well still be at my mom’s house; I envision them right next to the once-priceless collection of baseball cards, reduced to dust by 45 years in a hot/cold attic. I may have to get up there and explore some day. Everything is available on eBay, though, and with a quick search of the auction site I found quite a number of people selling their science books from the 1960s. The brown cardboard cases held maybe a half-dozen booklets. According to an ad I found while searching the Internet, my dad was shelling out a buck a month for the Science Service books.

Science Service books

This lot of Science Service books published by Doubleday was recently spotted for sale on eBay. I had many of these books as a kid in the mid-’60s.

Another vivid astronomy memory from when I was a little kid involved one of our neighbors, Pete Schultz, who built his own telescope. One time he showed me Jupiter through it, and I could see the planet’s bands and moons. It was the coolest thing I had ever seen! I don’t know how much observing Pete did over the years; we lived in Renton, a Seattle suburb, and the skies were probably never all that dark, though certainly they were better in the mid-’60s than they are now.

Though I had this interest in the cosmos, I did not make much effort to look at it. I could identify the constellations—Orion seemed especially huge when he stood in the middle of our street—and would go out to look at the occasional lunar eclipse. Most of my observing attempts involved comets. I was in high school when Kohoutek came around. The father of one of the guys in my Boy Scout troop had a telescope and set it up so we could have a look. That was a major disappointment; we all remember what a dud Kohoutek was. Somehow comet West slipped right by me. I remember reading about Halley’s Comet in the Science Service books and thinking, in the mid-’60s, that its 1986 return would NEVER get here! I missed Halley, which was mostly visible in the Southern Hemisphere. Later efforts to look at Hyakutake and Hale-Bopp through binoculars were more successful and satisfying. When I was 11 we stumbled upon the Perseid metor shower at a super-dark wilderness site; our scout troop coincidentally was on a backpacking trip during the peak of the shower, and it was spectacular. That was the extent of my astronomical observing.

I can pinpoint the moment that my interest reached the tipping point, astronomy became a full-fledged hobby, and I was turned into a space and astronomy writer. It was 2003, the year of the great apparition of Mars. I was working at the University of Puget Sound, which had developed a new course about Mars exploration, and I wrote an article about the course for Arches, the university magazine. (You can read a PDF version of the article here.) After spending a few days hanging around the physics department with astronomy Prof. Bernie Bates, I suddenly found myself enriching the coffers of Orion Telescopes and spending many a late night out in the cold with my 8-inch Dobsonian and wandering raccoons. My sweetie helped push me over the edge by giving me The Backyard Astronomer’s Guide for my birthday.

That’s my story. I have been a total space geek for about as long as I can remember and was good in math and science in school. I wound up in a humanities field, majoring in broadcast journalism in college, while maintaining a passing interest in astronomy over the years. It wasn’t until I was 45 that a great astronomical observing event combined with the opportunity to hang around with the right academics forged me into an active participant in the hobby. Adequate amounts of disposable income and spare time certainly helped.

So what can we do to get “the kids” interested in astronomy? I’m not certain that anything overt will work. Few tweens, teens, and 20-somethings want to be told what to do, and it’s hard to imagine them attending astronomy club meetings. I’ve been a member of several, and the topics seem to tend more toward high-level lectures about galaxy formation or in-depth talks about techniques of astrophotography or building an observatory. There’s not often much of a WOW factor there. Many young folks may well be buying telescopes and astronomy magazines, but they’re out looking at the stars rather than going to meetings.

This chart from Sky & Telescope magazine shows where to spot Venus, Jupiter, and Mercury this week.

This chart from Sky & Telescope magazine shows where to spot Venus, Jupiter, and Mercury this week.

I think that the best thing that we can do to interest young people, or anyone, in astronomy is to simply show them something interesting. Give them a look through a telescope or binoculars, or point out an beautiful naked-eye object. This week’s close grouping of Jupiter, Venus, and Mercury will be a good opportunity for this. Comet ISON may well provide another this fall. Get thee to a place where others might be and set up. Many folks will think, “That’s nice.” Others may have no interest at all. But you never know when you might be planting a seed.

Pete Schultz, the neighbor who first showed me Jupiter through his homemade telescope, passed away back in March, just a few days after his 77th birthday. I’ve been thinking about him a lot lately. I don’t know if he remembered giving me my first look through a telescope. But it’s something I’ll never forget, and I hope that he knows on some sort of cosmic level that his simple gesture made a big difference to a little neighbor kid. When my “star stuff” is released back into the universe, I hope that I’ve given just one person that kind of fond memory or inspiration. The seed may not blossom for a half century, and I may not be here to enjoy the flower. But its sweetness won’t be wasted.


Planetary Resources sets announcement, making space accessible

Planetary Resources is planning to announce, with some hoopla, a project to “make make access to space widely available for exploration and research.” The Bellevue-based asteroid mining company is bringing in Brent Spiner—Data from Star Trek—to help with a day of announcement activities about the initiative next Wednesday at the Museum of Flight in Seattle.

Planetary Resources, Inc.Planetary Resources, according to a news release sent by the museum, is “developing the most advanced space technology ever and will make it publicly accessible.”

A diverse group of supporters, including Virgin’s Sir Richard Branson, actor Seth Green, Spiner, Star Trek’s Rob Picardo (The Doctor), Bill Nye the Science Guy, futurist Jason Silva, and MIT astrophysicist Dr. Sara Seager are listed as backers of the project.

Activities for May 29 include a media event at 10 a.m. featuring Planetary Resources officials Peter Diamandis, Eric Anderson and Chris Lewicki, and vlogger Hank Green. At 3:30 p.m. Green and Spiner will lead a public event in the Great Gallery of the museum. Both events will be streamed live as well. (We’ll publish links when they are available.)

UPDATE: Stream the events here; there’s more info on the Planetary Resources blog.

The release hints that the project will create opportunities for citizen science, including direct participation in the company’s asteroid-mining mission.


Mario Livio highlights week of great space and astronomy events

Writers should generally avoid clichés. Given today’s end of a great streak of good observing weather, and some great choices for science lectures in the next week, “When it rains, it pours” seems an apt statement even for an astronomy blog.

Mario Livio

Mario Livio will speak about Brilliant Scientific Blunders at Town Hall Seattle Wednesday evening.

The headliner for the week is astrophysicist and author Mario Livio of the Space Telescope Science Institute, who will speak at Town Hall Seattle on Wednesday, May 15, about his new book, Brilliant Blunders, being released this week. Livio’s premise is that even the great ones like Einstein and Darwin goof, and that’s good; science thrives on error, advancing when incorrect theories are disproven. Livio also is the author of Is God a Mathematician?, and he’s one of half a dozen experts featured in an article of the May issue of Astronomy magazine who help explain the size, shape, and limits of the universe. Livio’s talk at Town Hall begins at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $5 and are available online.

Other choices for the week:


Another Town Hall Seattle event May 13 is actually a triple feature. At 6 p.m. University of Washington Ph.D. students Patti Carroll and Meg Smith will talk about their work as part of the U.W. Science Now series. Carroll will talk about radio astronomy and the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence. Hint: It’s not exactly like the movie “Contact.” Smith will talk about the mysteries of Mars and the possibility that life once existed there. As a bonus, tickets for these two talks also get you in to a 7:30 p.m. lecture by Daniel Dennett titled “Thinking About Thinking Itself.”


At a “Science Café” event May 14 at the Swiss Pub in Tacoma U.W. Prof. Joshua Bandfield will give a talk titled, “To the Moon, Mars & Beyond: Robotic Spacecraft Exploration.” Bandfield will discuss the pros and cons of using no-crew spacecraft to explore the solar system. Bandfield is an engaging speaker who keynoted the Seattle Astronomical Society annual banquet in 2010. Admission is free to the Science Café, though it would be good to buy a brew. The series is sponsored by the Pacific Science Center and KCTS9 television.


Theodor Jacobsen Observatory

The Seattle Astronomical Society meets at the U.W. on Wednesday evening, with its main topic being a discussion of considerations for buying a first telescope. It’s just late for Mother’s Day, but it’s never to early to start thinking about Christmas! SAS meets at 7:30 p.m. in room A102 of the Physics/Astronomy Building on the U.W. campus.

Also at the U.W. May 15 they’ll hold one of the bi-monthly open houses at the Theodor Jacobsen Observatory. Three different U.W. students will give talks during  the evening, and Seattle Astronomical Society volunteers will be on had for tours of the vintage building and, if weather permits, a look through the Alvan Clark Telescope in the dome. Events begin at 9 p.m., and advance reservations are strongly encouraged for the talks.

Jon Jenkins

Jon Jenkins will give two talks about the hunt for exoplanets Thursday at the University of Washington


Back to the U.W. again on May 16 for a pair of events featuring Jon Jenkins of the SETI Institute and the NASA Ames Research Center. Jenkins will speak at the U.W. Astronomy Department Colloquium at 4 p.m. in room A102 of the Physics/Astronomy Building, and give a public lecture at 7:30 p.m. in Kane Hall room 120. The colloquium will be a highly technical talk about the Kepler mission, while the public lecture will be a more general exploration of the search for exoplanets.

You can keep track of area space and astronomy events by watching the Seattle Astronomy calendar. Also follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.