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Ad Astra
Volume 15, Number 1 January/February 2003


Mission Control
Space Beat
Unconventional Space

Culprit Colliders Revealed
Earth’s precarious presence in the cosmic crosshairs of comets and asteroids has been known for some time, but until now, the characteristics of the colliding culprits have been a mystery. However, new research has revealed the identity of the dinosaur killer that gouged out the 65 million-year-old Chicxulub crater in Mexico as well as another close encounter of the worst kind in Sudbury, Canada. Both impact craters, among the largest on Earth, have nearly the same size and structure, researchers say, but one was caused by a comet while an asteroid created the other.
 
Crater experts visiting the Chicxulub and Sudbury craters re-created their structures and estimated the amount of melted rock produced by the impacts. “While the size and structure of the two craters were similar, they differed greatly in the amount of impact melt that was produced,” said Susan Kieffer of the University of Illinois. According to her co-worker, Kevin Pope, “Sudbury has about 31,000 cubic kilometers of impact melt, approximately six times the volume of lakes Huron and Ontario combined, and nearly 70 percent more than the melt at Chicxulub.”
 
The difference in melt volume could be readily explained if Chicxulub—the impact crater that doomed the dinosaurs—was formed by an asteroid and Sudbury was gouged by a comet. “Our calculation of 18,000 cubic kilometers of impact melt at Chicxulub agreed well with model estimates for an asteroid striking at a 45 degree angle,” posited Kieffer. “In contrast, the Sudbury impact melt volume of 31,000 cubic kilometers fell between model estimates for a comet striking at an angle of 30-45 degrees.”
 
Supporting the comet theory was the discovery of water-rich breccia—called suevite—inside the 1.8 billion-year-old Sudbury crater. “Somewhere around 1,400-2,000 cubic kilometers of water from the comet…mixed into the impact melt, and…creat[ed] the excess suevite,” Kieffer explained. The intense heat of the impact melt and injection of cometary water combined to create widespread hot springs on the crater floor possibly capable of supporting life.
 
“Quaoar” From Afar
NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope has bagged the biggest find in the Solar System since Pluto was discovered 72 years ago. Hubble’s quarry, dubbed Quaoar (and pronounced “kwa-whar”), is about 1,280 kilometers across and lies more than one and a half billion kilometers beyond Pluto. Astronomers at the California Institute of Technology named the new object after a creation god of the Native American Tongva tribe—the original inhabitants of the Los Angeles basin where Caltech is located. However, Quaoar is not an official name—at least not yet. In a few months, the International Astronomical Union, astronomy’s governing body, will vote on it. For the moment, the object carries the designation 2002 LM60.
 
Images of 2002 LM60, a.k.a. Quaoar, had been captured as long ago as 1982, but it was not recognized as a new world. “It could easily have been detected 20 years ago, but it wasn’t,” said Caltech’s Michael Brown, perhaps because Quaoar lies in the so-called Kuiper Belt, a swarm of objects that orbit the Sun beyond Neptune. Over the past decade more than 500 icy bodies have been found in the Kuiper Belt. With a few exceptions all have been significantly smaller than Pluto. However, even seen from afar, Quaoar is half Pluto’s size, and apparently larger than the ninth planet’s moon, Charon. “It’s about the size of all the asteroids put together,” said Brown. “So this thing is really quite big.” Researchers suspect the illusive Quaoar is made mostly of low-density ices mixed with rock, not unlike the makeup of a comet, though 100 million times greater in volume. Eventually, predicts Brown, Kuiper Belt objects even larger than Quaoar will be found. Meanwhile, Quaoar is the record-holder—a tantalizing glimpse of perhaps bigger things to come.
 
Soyuz Rocket Disintegrates in Explosion
A “Soyuz” rocket, which means “union” in Russian, exploded and disintegrated seconds after blast-off, in a setback that could impact the international space station (ISS). The 300-ton unmanned Soyuz-U booster blew up 29 seconds after take-off from Russia’s Plesetsk cosmodrome, its blazing debris showering the launchpad and killing one person. The ill-stared flight carried a European research satellite and was not connected with ISS, but an official at Russia’s mission control, which monitors the orbiting outpost, said the accident could raise a question mark over upcoming flights to the station.
 
The Soyuz booster traces its origins to the rocket that boosted Yuri Gagarin into space in 1961. Today, the Russian-made rocket is a workhorse that hauls supplies and ferries crew rescue vehicles to the orbiting outpost. Over the years it has earned a reputation for reliability. “We haven’t had an accident for 11 years with this Soyuz booster rocket,” the mission control official said. However, Russia’s space program has been plagued by underfunding since the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991 and shortfalls in financing have been blamed for a series of Russian rocket explosions in the 1990s.
 
Crunch Time for “Runaway Universe”
Gloomy forecasts of a dark and lonely future for our galaxy may be premature according to new studies that question the popular view of a “runaway universe.” In this widely accepted scenario, our Milky Way will become an isolated island adrift in a sea of totally black space 150 billion years from now. But new studies by Stanford cosmologists Andrei Linde and Renata Kallosh raise the specter of a cosmic “big crunch” in a “mere” 10 to 20 billion years. If the Linde-Kallosh model is correct, then the universe, which appears to be accelerating now, will begin to slow down and contract. “Everything we see now, and at a much larger distance that we cannot see, will collapse into a point smaller than a proton,” predicted Linde.
 
The fate of the cosmos has been hotly debated for decades, beginning, in the modern era, with Einstein’s “cosmological constant” and the concept of “dark energy” that opposes gravity. The existence of some kind of mysterious “dark energy” in space appeared to be confirmed in 1998 when two independent teams of astronomers discovered that not only is the universe expanding, but it is ballooning at an ever-faster pace.
 
However, questions about the effects of “dark energy” emerged from the shadowy world of string theory and extended supergravity. “We have found that some of the best attempts to describe dark energy predict that it will gradually become negative, which will cause the universe to become unstable, then collapse,” Linde said. “People who studied general relativity many years ago were aware of this, but to them, this was an academic possibility. It was weird to think about negative vacuum energy seriously. Now we have some reasons to believe it.”
 
The Linde-Kallosh model also predicts the cosmos will collapse in 10 to 20 billion years—much earlier that previously theorized. “This was really strange,” Linde recalled. “Physicists have known that dark energy could become negative and the universe could collapse sometime in the very distant future, perhaps in a trillion years, but now we see that we might be…in the middle of the life cycle of our universe.”
 
Direct observations with state-of-the-art telescopes, satellites and other instruments will answer some of the unresolved questions, Linde predicts. “We’re entering the era of precision cosmology, where we really can get a lot of data, and these data become more precise. Perhaps 10 years, 20 years, 30 years, I don’t know, but this is the timescale in which we will get a map of the universe with all its observable parts,” said Linde. The good news, he added, is that “we still have a lot of time to find out whether this is going to happen.”
 
Europan Life and Lava Lamps
The chances of finding life on Europa received a boost thanks to data from the Galileo space probe showing a thin icy crust on the Jovian moon. Images from a recent flyby revealed cracks and vents in the eggshell-like crust, which would allow gases, heat and organic matter to reach the benthonic depths below. “These new interpretations suggest that an Europan ocean and its ice cap could be dynamically interacting with the moon’s surface atmosphere over short timescales that increase opportunities for life,” theorized Cynan Ellis-Evans of the British Antarctic Survey.
 
One intriguing possibility is that clouds of sulfur from Jupiter’s moon, Io, are deposited on the Europan surface and transported to the ocean below by organic-rich meteorites punching through the ice. “If we’re getting a sulfur source going into the lake it’s an exciting possibility,” Ellis-Evans noted. “It increases the opportunity for life.” Once there, the sulfur-spiced organic brew could be churned by subterranean “lava lamp” action. “Europa acts like a planetary lava lamp, carrying material from near the surface down to the ocean, and, if they exist, potentially transporting organisms up toward the surface,” claimed Robert Pappalardo, a planetary scientist at the University of Colorado. The boost for Europan life might provide a lifeline for a proposed Europan mission that is currently on life support.
 
The Fountainhead
For the first time astronomers have observed the entire life cycle, and bad table manners, of one of Nature’s most powerful energy fountains—a stellar black hole in our own galaxy. Images from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory showed that the black hole, which is about 17,000 light years from Earth, doesn’t swallow everything, but spits some of the incoming stuff out in opposite directions along its axis of rotation. These high-energy jets can be observed because of their strong emissions in wavelengths from radio to X-rays.
 
Early on, the jets were moving at about half the speed of light. But like a geyser slowed by air resistance, the jets rapidly decelerated and generated shock waves. This allowed astronomers to examine the life cycle of the jets for the first time, something not possible with longer-lived jets emerging from supermassive black holes. “Since the jets came from a stellar black hole in our galaxy, we watched in a few years developments that would have taken thousands of years to occur around a supermassive black hole in a distant galaxy,” said Stephane Corbel of the University of Paris and the French Atomic Energy Commission.

Unconventional Space
By Taylor Dinerman

No one seems to have informed Sean O’Keefe that the new NASA vision statement, “to improve life here, to extend life to there, to find life beyond,” is uncomfortably close to Weston’s pseudo heroic speech in C.S. Lewis’ famous novel, Out of the Silent Planet, in which he loudly proclaims that “Life is greater than any system of morality; her claims are absolute. It is not by tribal taboos and copy book maxims that she has pursued her relentless march from amoeba to man and from man to civilization.” “... She has ruthlessly broken down all obstacles and liquidated all failures, and today, in her highest form—civilized man—and in me has as his representative, she presses forward to that interplanetary leap which will, perhaps, place her forever beyond the reach of death.”

This is a crude but not inaccurate satire on the views of certain famous, politically active, British scientists of the 1930s. That NASA, in the first decade of the 21st century, should find itself echoing such views is a little disturbing. There are plenty of good justifications for exploring and eventually colonizing the solar system. They include improving Earth’s living standards, security and environment, expanding our knowledge of the neighborhood we live in and securing America’s lead in science and technology. To bring “life” into the argument is as much of a mistake as to bring religion into it. US taxpayers are not going to pay to send missionaries into the solar system and it does not matter whether they represent “Life” or “Civilization” or “Jesus.” A broad understanding of the role space exploration plays in supporting the US national interest should be more than enough.

Since NASA is part of the US government, it should be held to the same standards as any other agency or organization. The failure of the agency to meet these standards is what O’Keefe was brought in to fix.
There is no doubt that he has made a good start. The Space Station’s (ISS) out of control costs have been, at least temporarily, beaten into submission, but at a price which may hurt American industry in the long term.
As of late 2002 the ISS is safely on the way to becoming “US core complete” in 2004 and “IP core complete” a couple of years later. The greatest problem on the horizon is how to keep the Soyuz life boat capsules operational until NASA’s Orbital Space Plane (OSP) is ready in 2010. The Russian contractual obligation to provide Soyuz runs out in ‘06 and some reports indicate that their capability to build these spacecraft may fall apart even before then. In its usual ponderous , bureaucratic way NASA is looking at the problem, but sadly, it may not come up with an answer until it is too late to prevent the ISS from being “abandoned in orbit” for months at a time.

Fixing that problem will take money that has to be spent now. The need for a simple alternative lifeboat or emergency shelter could haunt NASA and the other members of the team for a long time to come. It should not be beyond the capacity of the US aerospace industry to build a simple, Apollo-type capsule, that can return to Earth from the ISS with six or seven humans. As a stop gap, such a system could be ready to go in ‘06, but only if work is begun on it in the next few months.

Under O’Keefe, the effort to squeeze every possible bit of scientific knowledge out the program has been given a priority never before seen in any NASA manned spaceflight project. Naming one crew member the “Science Officer,” is just a small part of this new concept. It has not been easy to push this idea onto the system but, in spite of the inevitable complaints, it is beginning to pay off. The new Office of Biological and Physical Research (OBPR) published the so-called, “ReMap Study of ISS Research Priorities,” in August 2002. After the immediate storm of criticism had quieted down, it became evident that the study had shown that the ISS would have to expand beyond the “US Core Complete” configuration if it were to accomplish the large number of scientific goals which had been originally promised. By concentrating on the biological sciences, particularly on the requirements for long-term human spaceflight, NASA is moving towards its long held institutional goal of getting humans “back to the Moon and on to Mars,” as George H.W. Bush put it in 1989.

Critics of the ISS have long maintained that it would crowd out investment in space science and in new technology. This was never really a serious threat since any budget cuts to the station would certainly be accompanied by cuts to the space science budget. In fact, one area where Dan Goldin left O’Keefe with a healthy agency was in the areas of robotic exploration and observation. Faster Better Cheaper has, after some inevitable early screw ups, proved itself to be a useful intellectual and management concept for NASA’s science missions.
The Space Science aspects of NASA’s work are not, at least right now, in need of close supervision. The procedures for choosing which missions and which experiments and research to finance are well understood and accepted by agency personnel, by foreign space agencies, by the scientific community, by contractors, by the space advocacy community and, most importantly, by the US Congress. This is one area where O’Keefe has rightly ruled with a light hand. With the exception of “The Pluto Express” controversy, things are running fairly smoothly.

On the surface at least, there are off-stage noises coming from JPL and other centers of space science excellence that not all is well. In some cases, this has to do with NASA’s well known lack of funds for infrastructure maintenance and repair. in other cases, it has to do with a real shortage of competent, well trained personnel. This is an agency wide problem and one hopes that O’Keefe will make it a priority in his second year.
While there has not been much said about NASA’s role in remote sensing, the agency, like other parts of the government and the remote sensing industry, is waiting for the results of Condi Rice’s NSC study on Remote Sensing Policy (which is being done together with a study on Launch Vehicle Policy: see my article, “Condelezza’s New Problem.”) The Earth Science Enterprise is another part of NASA that requires little serious management attention. They are making solid technological progress and have a good record of passing what they develop on to other government agencies such as the DoD and NOAA as well as to the private sector. Ghassan Asnar is an exemplary NASA leader. O’ Keefe has rightly left him more or less alone.

The main areas where O’Keefe and NASA have failed, and failed badly, is in the launch vehicle development program and aerospace technology development in general. According to the NASA performance report, one of the most important strategic goals of that enterprise is to “achieve the full potential of space for all human endeavor through affordable space transportation.” NASA admits that only 46% of the goal for this part of the agency were accomplished in FY 01.

Even if one admits that they are being asked to reach some difficult goals, this level of work is unacceptable. This work is critical to the future of America as a world power. Somebody should be very upset, and that somebody should be the administrator.

He inherited the Space Launch Initiative program from Goldin. This was a carefully thought out project that, despite some over optimistic estimates of how long a new Reusable Launch Vehicle (RLV) would take to develop, was based on a realistic estimate of America’s national requirements. SLI was largely in the hands of the Marshall spaceflight center, an operation which is generally recognized as having performed sub-par work on X-34 and its FastTrac engine and on the ISS’s Node One (Unity). The doubts that many in the community had about SLI were loud and unmistakable. Before he left, Goldin had warned that some people inside the agency were looking to SLI to fund the cost overruns on the Space Station/Space Shuttle program. His warning has now come true.

Even after O’Keefe fixed most of the ISS cost control problems there was still the unavoidable problem of the Crew Return Vehicle (CRV). He has decided to raid the SLI budget in order to build an Orbital Space Plane (OSP) which will not only replace the CRV but will eventually replace the Shuttle for certain crew transfer operations and, one hopes, other uses will be found for what might be a genuinely useful vehicle.

Yet, the OSP, if it lives up to its promise and does not end up on the scrap heap like so many other recent NASA projects such as DC-XA , X-33, X-34 and now the 2nd Generation RLV , will suck the guts out of the RLV development project that NASA has now renamed the Next Generation Launch Technology Program (NGLTP). The only possible benefit the OSP could provide to the RLV development effort is that one day it , or a version of it , could ride into orbit on an RLV instead of a Delta IV or Atlas V.

O’Keefe’s notorious crack that he “has not found anyone who can attest to the fact that there is any technology that can achieve [major cost reductions]” is one of those lines that will come back to haunt him. It shows that he is thinking strictly about the interests of NASA and is ignoring the broad national interest which NASA is supposed to serve. A TSTO RLV is within reach of America’s, if not NASA’s, technology. If he really believed that, why is he wasting billions of precious NASA dollars on the NGLTP? Why not just give up?

Obviously, NASA is not going to throw away decades of hard work on these systems, especially when the Europeans and Russians are working on these lines and when NASA and the whole US government might be embarrassed by the success of an X-Prize winner.

To build such a system within a decade and to make it work, will need changes in the rules and regulations under which the aerospace industry operates. The Walker Commission has recognized this, as well as recognizing that RLV development is essential to maintain America’s lead in the aerospace industry.
Perhaps the biggest obstacle to the success of America’s RLV efforts, is the tendency of the space community—industry, government and advocacy groups—to form circular firing squads at the slightest provocation. As one of the most important leaders of that community, O’Keefe could play a unifying role instead of limiting his horizons to NASA and hardly anything beyond. He was not hired to be a visionary, but a leader—we await his leadership.

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