Hydrogen Fuel Cells – The Future of Portables?

Image of Apple plus Hydrogen Fuel Cell

Apple recently submitted two patent applications at the US Patent and Trademark Office that could revolutionize the the already remarkable devices the computer giant is making for its users. The new innovation is using a light weight hydrogen fuel cell to power its portable devices making them usable for days or even weeks before refueling. The hydrogen fuel cell, which produces electrical energy with only water as a byproduct after reaction between hydrogen and oxygen, is one of the most environmental friendly cell ever invented.

The hydrogen fuel cells, in addition to being eco-friendly and efficient are also lighter than other batteries and can run for longer periods of time. In technical terms, the fuel cells can achieve high volumetric and gravimetric energy densities or in simple words, pack considerable amounts of energy into a small space. Apple’s patent currently lists many potential fuel cell models which includes sodium borohydride and water, sodium silicate and water and lithium hydride and water. For Apple, the design and deployment of a hydrogen fuel cell in a portable device such as a laptop or smartphone in cost effective ways is still a distant dream as there are challenges to be met.

Image of Solar Farm

The two patents filed by Apple are “Fuel Cell System to Power a Portable Computing Device” and “Fuel Cell System Coupled to a Portable Computing Device”. These two applications are successors to a previous appliction made by Apple in October. Plans were also revealed then regarding construction of a 171 acre solar farm near Maiden, N.C where they run a $1 billion Project Dolphin data center.

Though many electronics manufacturers had shown their interests in replacing their toxic chemical based batteries to hydrogen cells, it appears Apple might steal the show once again. In addition to environmental issues posed by conventional batteries, there are other political and business related issues facing electronics companies and this new method would prove useful in multifarious ways.

It is true that if the new technology is a hit, others will follow suit just as it happened with the iPhone and iPad. However, hydrogen fuel cells have issues with storage and pose more security risks. Hence, with the current designs, we can’t expect the hydrogen fuel cell powered portables to be any cheaper than the models already sold by Apple. Further, methods to refule must be considered. If a replacement of the bettery is required everytime the fuel is out, it would affect the popularity of the technology. Thus, the technology is years away from realization.

References

  1. “Apple Mulls Over Replacing Plug-In Batteries with Hydrogen Fuel Cells.” Green Packs. Dec 27, 2011. http://www.greenpacks.org/2011/12/27/apple-mulls-over-replacing-plug-in-batteries-with-hydrogen-fuel-cells/ (accessed Dec 27, 2011).
  2. “Apple plots smartphones powered by hydrogen.” The Telegraph. Dec 25, 2011. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/apple/8975382/Apple-plots-smartphones-powered-by-hydrogen.html#disqus_thread (accessed Dec 27, 2011).
  3. “Apple, GoDaddy, Adidas, Joe Cool: Intellectual Property.” Bloomberg Businessweek. Dec 27, 2011. http://www.businessweek.com/news/2011-12-27/apple-godaddy-adidas-joe-cool-intellectual-property.html (accessed Dec 27, 2011).

Chi_b (3P) – A New Member to The Particle Zoo!

Image of Large Hadron Collider

Since restarting operations in 2009, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) situated in the Franco-Swiss border has made its first confirmed observation of a new particle. Titled Chi_b (3P) by physicists from UK, who worked on the ATLAS experiment, this particle could help scientists understand the fundamental forces better.

The result is however still unpublished but is available in Arxiv pre-print server for reference. As explained before, the LHC is exploring some of the greatest questions in theoretical physics by creating the conditions of our early universe through proton-proton collisions.

Prof. Roger Jones who works at the ATLAS detector explained that the Chi_b (3P) is an excited state or rather a heavier variant of the Chi particle, which was discovered about 25 years ago. Physicists James Walder said that though scientists had predicted Chi-b (3P)’s existence then, it was never seen until now.

Image of LHC Tunnel

Just like the Higgs and photon, Chi_b (3P) is a boson, which means that it will carry some force and obey Bose-Einstein statistics. However, it is unlike Higgs in that it has an internal structure composed of relatively heavy particles viz. beauty quark (also known as bottom quark) and its antiquark, explains Prof. Jones. The quarks that build protons, neutrons and other hadrons come in six flavors viz. up, down, strange, charm, top and bottom. An interesting aspect of this finding is what it tells us about the strong nuclear force (carried by gluons) that binds both the quarks together.

The measurements made in this machine tests theoretical calculations of the forces and discoveries of new particles such as Chi_b (3P), takes us closer to achieving a fuller understanding of the structure of our universe and cementing our views about how it is held together.

This particle’s discovery is particularly important since once we better understand the strong force, we could explain the thing happening in the background of the collisions where we are currently looking for the Higgs. According to Prof. Paul Newman of the University of Birmingham, this marks the first time a new particle has been discovered in the LHC and that it is proof that the machine ran successfully in 2011. Andy Chisholm, a PhD student at Birmingham, who worked on the analysis team, added that the analysis of billions of these particle collisions is fascinating because of the potentially interesting things buried in the data. They were lucky this time since they looked at the right place in the mess at the right time.

Image of CERN Scientist

The LHC is expected to fill the gaps that exist in the Standard Model of Particle physics thereby opening horizons in new physics. The main aim for which the machine was built is to find the elusive Higgs boson; which, if exists could give satisfactory explanation of why matter has mass. That discovery could also throw more light on the workings of gravity, especially in the realm of unified field theories.

The machine, which resides inside a 27 km ring-shaped tunnel, 175 meters below the ground fires streams of protons on opposite directions every day and produce billions of collisions. The beams are controlled by magnets and the carnage of the collisions that happen are recorded using detectors. It was only 10 days ago when scientists at CERN announced that they are pretty close to finding the Higgs boson and Chi_b (3P) could be a step closer to this goal.

References:

  1. Amos, J. “LHC reports discovery of its first new particle.” BBC News – Science & Environment. Dec 22, 2011. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-16301908 (accessed Dec 23, 2011).
  2. Brown, M. “Large Hadron Collider discovers a new particle: the Chi-b(3P).” Wired.co.uk. Dec 22, 2011. http://www.wired.co.uk/news/archive/2011-12/22/lhcs-first-new-particle (accessed Dec 23, 2011).
  3. Collaboration, The ATLAS. “Observation of a New Chi_b State in Radiative Transitions to Gamma (1S) and Gamma(2S) at ATLAS.” arxiv.org. Dec 21, 2011. http://arxiv.org/PS_cache/arxiv/pdf/1112/1112.5154v1.pdf (accessed Dec 23, 2011).
  4. “Large Hadron Collider finds new variant of particle.” Dawn.com. Dec 23, 2011. http://www.dawn.com/2011/12/23/large-hadron-collider-finds-new-variant-of-particle.html (accessed Dec 23, 2011).

UND Space Studies Distance Learning Part – I

The University of North Dakota has an excellent masters degree program in space called Space Studies, which was started in 1987. What makes the program so special is its interdisciplinary nature and the willingness to admit students from practically any undergraduate background. The program encompasses engineering, physical sciences, biological sciences, policy and business related aspects of space. As a student of the Department of Space Studies at UND, I feel that this fantastic program must get people’s attention.

To quote my professor, for most people, space means just rockets, astronauts, and pretty Hubble pictures. No one sees the broad view where there are multiple subjects involved making the field very intricate and fascinating. Right from equipment manufacture to complicated life support systems to space policy making, space is a field where all the cutting edge technology, science and politics comes into picture.

UND graduate, Brian White has written an excellent blog regarding the Space Studies masters at UND as well as ISU. Hence, I am not going to cover that part. You can also get more information about the program from the official department website. What I plan to do in Part – I of this series is to discuss one of the three required courses in Space Studies masters called SpSt 501 – Survey of Space Studies – 1 and my experience so far as a distance student studying it. This is an introductory course that lets students know what space studies is all about and what they can expect from the remaining semesters. It is co-taught by all the faculty members of the program and hence gives the students an introduction to the subjects taught by each faculty and their individual research areas.

As any person fascinated by space like me, there will be lot of questions in mind such as to which branch of space studies one needs to specialize and so on. For instance, some students like astrophysics while some others like commercial space and yet there are some who like spacecraft design and space biology. After 501, students start to rethink their interesting areas. I have heard students talk about specializing in fields that they never thought they would specialize when they started the program.

What appears to be very fascinating might not be the field where our original talent lies. SpSt 501 gives us the opportunity and wide perspective to think and choose our area of specialization as we advance in the program. I am a distance student of this program living in India and it has given me an amazing experience studying online. UND Team has invested sufficient amount of time and money in order to give the distance students as close to a campus experience as possible with high quality videos and power point presentations.

Prerequisites

There are no specific prerequisites for this course since students from practically any background with descent GRE and TOEFL scores can join the program. I think this is the most exciting aspect of this program. It doesn’t matter whether we have a physics degree or aerospace engineering degree in our undergraduate study. What matters is having an intense desire to make contributions to the field of space. And that I think is the prerequisite for this course. But from experience of this course, I have a few suggestions. It is good to revise your basic economics, biology and mathematics that you learned in school and college. Keep an overall outlook about the various aspects of space in the current space age and past. You should know the basics like what a light year or an astronomical unit means among other things. You should be familiar with the concepts of biological, geological and cosmological evolution. As far as mathematics is concerned, if you are familiar with trigonometry, logarithms and exponential series, you should do just fine. Knowledge of calculus is appreciated but not applied too much in this particular course.

Enrollment

Every student will be given access to the Campus Connection portal. This is where he/she can register for the course. Once registered, the student can request permission to access the course in the Learning Management System of the department. This is the one stop location where most of the activities take place. The lectures, power points, course syllabus, grade book and assignments are managed here. You can either download the lecture or the presentation or watch it online. Interested people can also buy some of the lectures from Amazon before enrolling to get a better understanding of the course.

Progress

Lectures are uploaded every week within two days after the class takes place. Since distance students cannot attend the classes, their attendance is counted by the chat sessions they attend with the concerned faculty and other distance students. The chat session for the distance students happen a week after the original classes were conducted. So, technically, distance students finish the course a week after the campus students do it. For 501, there are 3 chat sessions per week and we can choose any one of them depending on our convenience. The exams are also called assignments. So do not confuse. They are conducted online and you can see your grades almost immediately unless there are subjective questions.

Description

As mentioned, 501 is a broad based introductory course. It is not an elective but a required course and carries 3 graduate credits. It is advised that you take this course at the first opportunity you get. The following will give you a brief idea about what this course actually comprises of. Please note that this might change depending on several factors associated with the university. There are 7 modules that we need to study in order to complete 501 as shown below:

1. Introductions

This module introduces you to all the remaining modules and each faculty associated with those modules. A brief overview of the course syllabus takes place. In addition, a separate class on writing methods is also conducted since all students have to write and submit papers to journals for the rest of their academic and research career. It is a very important module and I learned a lot from it.

2. Space History & Policy

Space Studies is just as policy oriented as its technical areas. This is important since we need to understand the real politics that goes behind the scenes of every space mission or research conducted. We should know from where the money comes and how it is regulated. For those of us who wish to try our hands in space entrepreneurship, policy is a must. This module introduces us to the general space arena and space history. Further, it teaches us space policy and law along with military space. So, by the end of this module, our perspective starts to change and that is a good thing.

3. Orbital Mechanics and Space Mission Design

This is really an interesting module and I must say my favorite. This is where I am focusing my current research and is a very smooth and straightforward module. It teaches introductory orbital mechanics and trajectory related calculations. The fundamental equations in rocket science and their applications are taught. Rockets, launch vehicles, payload and spacecraft design are the other subjects dealt in this module. The module ends with the analysis and design of space missions, which reminded me of my software engineering classes. It is basically a space replica of the same. Overall, this is where the technology part of space studies begins. My personal advice is to get this module engraved in your mind since you are going to use the concepts you learn here for the rest of your life if you work in this field.

4. Planetary and Space Science

This is yet another interesting module. Those who want to move onto astronomy and astrophysics, astrobiology or earth science should know all the concepts taught in this module. It covers lunar and solar system science, the planet mars, asteroids, meteorites and comets, extraterrestrial life, observational astronomy and earth science and global change. I think these topics are self explanatory.

5. Space Life Sciences

I just loved this module. It opened up yet another door in my mind through which ideas can pass. In this module, space suits, psychological aspects of adaptation to space and the history and policy of human spaceflight are taught. I never thought I would become interested in space life support systems before I studied this module. As I mentioned before, our interests will eventually change as we move through the program until we find what exactly is it that we want to do in space.

6. Satellite Applications

For information technology graduates like me, this module is very closely related to the things we learned during our undergraduate program. Hence, it is relatively easy to grasp the details. The topics covered are communication satellites and remote sensing.

7. Space Economics, Business, and Management

It is again policy related. It speaks about international space where all other countries that have space programs other than US and Russia are introduced. More topics on NASA and its current position in US space arena is also taught in addition to going to deep into the government and industry aspects of space economics and management.

By now, you might have got an idea about what SpSt 501 is all about and how it can benefit you during your entire Space Studies program and beyond. The semester has ended and I can say for sure that I am fully satisfied with the course curriculum. A few final words before I close this topic:

  1. If you are a distance student, make sure that you have plenty of time to invest. If you are working and studying, you are going to be on a rough ride especially if you have joined a research team of some sort.
  2. Being a distance student, you are advised to take only one course per semester. This means that you will take about 3-4 years to complete the required 33 credits of graduate work. My personal advice is – DO NOT take more than one course per semester since 1 itself is too much work. If you are very clever, you can manage 2 but NEVER 3!
  3. Do not think that just because the exams are open book type, you don’t need to study. You have to work really hard since the exams are timed and the more time you spend referring materials, the lesser you will get to answer the questions. So, study really well before attempting the exams.
  4. If you are an overseas distance student, you won’t be funded. Hence, please make sure that you have sufficient sources of funding if you plan to take the courses overseas.

You don’t have to rush yourself to complete the 33 credits within 2 years like the regular students. Remember, in academics, it is not always the first person to finish first who wins. It is the person who finishes well. With this maxim, I am concluding this post.  I wish you all the best in your Space Studies program!

Earth’s Twins Found! – Yet Another Exoplanet Milestone!

Image of Habitable Zone

There are three fundamental ingredients that a planet must have if LAKI (Life As we Know It) should exist on it and they are organic molecules, sufficient energy for these molecules to react and liquid water as a medium for these reactions. Though it sounds simple, only planets with very close resemblance to Earth in all aspects might harbor these three ingredients. The planets closer to their start are too hot for liquid water and the ones farther are too cold. Similarly the ones too large are gaseous and the ones too small cannot have an atmosphere. That is where finding Earth-like planets become very important.

Liquid water is the main component of the primordial soup where organic molecules react and form complex self replicating structures like our DNA which eventually lead to formation of LAKI. There is of course a remote possibility of formation of exotic life forms in planets with extreme conditions like the extremophiles we observe in certain areas on Earth but generally we are on the lookout for planets where normal life forms like our own can exist and flourish. This is in the light of possible colonization of future worlds by humans.

Image of Kepler Space Telescope

After years of hunting, astronomers have finally detected, the first Earth-sized exoplanets orbiting a star quite similar to our Sun, located 950 light years from Earth thereby taking exoplanet research to the next level. These two planets are among five orbiting the G-type parent star Kepler-20. Entitled “Earth-Twins”, they are by far the most important exoplanets discovered. Scientist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, Dr. François Fressin led the research and according to him, this marks the dawn of an exciting new era of planetary discovery.

NASA’s Kepler space telescope used the transit method to detect these planets in which it notices tiny dips in the parent star apparent brightness when planets passed in front of it. The scientists then use ground based observatories to confirm that they have found a planet by measuring the minute wobbles of the parent star’s position caused by gravitational tugs from its planets.

Image of Planets size comparison

The larger of the two planets named Kepler 20f, is 1.03 times the size of Earth while Kepler 20e is slightly smaller with 0.87 times the radius of Earth and orbits closer to its parent star. Their masses are 3 times and 1.7 times the mass of Earth respectively. Their orbital periods are 6.1 Earth days for 20e and 19.6 Earth days for 20f at distances of days at a distance of 7.6 million kilometers and 16.6 million kilometers respectively. These sizes are gravitationally good enough to form rocky interiors. According to Dr. Fressin’s team, the planets have Earth-like compositions consisting of a third of iron core with a silicate mantle. The outer planet, Kepler 20f might have a thicker, water vapor atmosphere according to Dr. Fressin.

Due to their current close proximity to their parent star, both planets could be too hot to support life. 20e is at 760 degrees Celsius while 20f is at 430 degrees Celsius. Dr. Fressin noted that in the past, they may have had favorable conditions similar to Earth before they drifted closer to their star. The reason he says is that the rocky materials required to form the planets this close to the star is scarce. Hence, they could have been formed farther out and later migrated in. Another curious aspect of the system is that the rocky planets alternate between their gaseous sisters unlike our solar system where terrestrial planets are inside and gas giants are out.

Though we have discovered over 700 exoplanets since 1996, this particular discovery is important since this is the first time we received positive confirmation that Earth sized and smaller planets exist outside our solar system. It also is a demonstration of the capability of the Kepler Space Telescope in detecting small planets located at extreme distances. Since its launch in 2009, Kepler alone has discovered 28 definite planets and 2,326 planet candidates. Of these, all are larger than Earth except 20e and 20f.

So far the most significant discovery in planet hunting, also made by Dr. Fressin’s team was a planet named Kepler 22b, 2.4 times the size of Earth, located within the habitable zone (the region of space around a star that is neither too cold nor too hot) of its parent star, which implies the planet could harbor liquid water and probably life. According to Dr. Fressin the discovery of Kepler 20f and 20e is the latest most significant of all planet discoveries.

This discovery will cause planetary scientists to revise their existing theories on planet formation. Other planets in the system are Kepler 20b, 20c, and 20d with diameters of 24,000 km, 40,000 km, and 35,000 km respectively with orbital periods of 3.7, 10.9, and 77.6 Earth days. Kepler-20d, weighs roughly 20 times Earth’s mass, while 20c and 20b weigh 16.1 and 8.7 times Earth.

We live in an era where it is impossible to say whether we are alone in the universe or not. The telescope is currently scanning 150,000 stars and one of the greatest dreams of planet hunters is to discover and Earth sized planet residing in the habitable zone of its star. That would be marked one of the greatest discoveries in all history where we know that an exact replica of our planet exists that could possibly support life. It is only a matter of time before this “holy grail” in exoplanet research is found.

Bibliography

  1. Ghosh, P. “First Earth-sized planets spotted.” BBC News – Science & Environment. Dec 20, 2011. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-16268950 (accessed Dec 21, 2011).
  2. Moskowitz, C. “Found! 2 Earth-Size Alien Planets, the Smallest Exoplanets Yet.” Space. Dec 20, 2011. http://www.space.com/13990-2-earth-size-alien-planets-kepler-smallest-worlds.html (accessed Dec 21, 2011).
  3. Wolchover, N. “Could There Be Life on the New Earth-Size Planets?” Life’s Little Mysteries. Dec 20, 2011. http://www.lifeslittlemysteries.com/life-earth-size-planets-2256/ (accessed Dec 21, 2011).

Extraterrestrial Resources and Humans – Can Space Resources Save Our Civilization?

Abstract

Image of Biosphere

Current global resource utilization depends on a closely-knit economy, society and environment. However, effective limits exist on the biosphere’s capability to absorb pollutants while providing resources and services (Adams). This paper describes why in the light of issues in sustainability of Earth’s resources and growing human population it is imperative to expand utilization to extraterrestrial resources to save our civilization.

The Necessity

Image of Global Power Consumption

Challenges to resource sustainability arise from a combination of population increase in developing nations and unsustainable consumption in their developed counterparts (Cohen). Estimated global population might peak at 2070 with 9 to 10 billion people, and gradually decrease to 8.4 billion by 2100 (Lutz).

The average power consumption in developed nations is ~ 2 kW per person whereas in the rest of the world, it is ~0.3kW per person. The total production of power globally is ~1.9 billion kW. Based on (Lutz), if the population reaches 10 billion people by 2070, and if the living standards of the world approach current western standards, 20 billion kW would be required. This argument leads to the following possibilities:

  1. Much of the world might remain in lower living standards or
  2. New sources of energy could be discovered

Research in planetary and asteroid geology, spectral and photometric analysis have proposed many celestial bodies as objects harboring useful resources with nearly 50% of them containing volatile substances such as clays, hydrated salts and hydrocarbons (Sonter). The following are some examples of in-situ resources:

  1. Volatiles from comet core, C-type asteroids and Phobos or Deimos
  2. Metals from C-type and M-type asteroids, Moon and Mars
  3. Platinum group metals (PGMs) from C-type asteroids
  4. Energy through abundant sunlight
  5. LOX and LH2 from lunar polar ice, lunar regolith, and C-type asteroids
  6. CH4/O2 propellant and inert gases from Martian atmosphere
  7. 3He from the Moon and atmospheres of outer planets
  8. Water and oxygen from Lunar poles, Mars and C-type asteroids

For Apollo-like missions, a limited use of local planetary resources on Moon and asteroids for rocket propellant manufacture would suffice. However, for a permanent, expanding, and self-sustaining extra-terrestrial colony, clever usage of planetary resources is necessary.

The Benefits

The cost of space activities reduce dramatically with offsets in carrying propellants from Earth’s surface to LEO and beyond (Cutler). Thus, commercial mining opportunities in space could provide low cost alternatives as resources on Earth become depleted or unusable.

The following are some of the possible profitable uses of space resources:

  1. Earth orbital operations architectures
  2. Solar power satellites or lunar power systems to beam energy to Earth
  3. Space industrialization for products manufactured in space for people on Earth
  4. Human outposts using silicon solar cells and radiation shielding
  5. Water and precious metals like Pt, Pd and Ir metals for use on Earth, space, life support
  6. 4He from the lunar surface for fusion energy
  7. Propellant production for return trips to Earth

The Challenges

There are economic and technical requirements that a celestial body must satisfy to qualify as a potential ore-body in a mining engineering context (Sonter):

  1. Sufficient spectral data confirming presence of required resources
  2. Orbital parameters that give reasonable accessibility and mission duration
  3. Feasible mining, processing and retrieval concepts
  4. A positive economic Net Present Value

Scientists and mining experts are currently conducting research and analysis on planetary extraction methods based on the above-mentioned considerations. However, this type of resource utilization is still not operational because:

  1. The cost is exorbitant in transporting items into space (about $4400 to $6600 per kilogram). Hence, bases on Moon, Mars, asteroids etc. should procure their necessities like water, oxygen and fuel from in situ resources (Zaburunov).
  2. Even if mission crew finds these items in situ, extraction is still an issue.

Image of ISRU

Different processes involved in mining of extra terrestrial resources offer different levels of complexity:

  1. Martian propellant production requires pumping CO2, splitting it to retain the O2 and producing CH4 (Zubrin)
  2. Lunar polar water for return trips and space propellant depots require excavating cold trap regolith, extracting water thermally and electrolysis, and liquefaction to produce propellant (Alexander)
  3. Photovoltaic cells produced from lunar materials require Si extraction from lunar regolith, recovering reagents, and manufacture of arrays (Freundlich)

The need for a market in any type of development and management of resources is very important. The potential short term and mid term markets of space resources, include:

  1. Propellant for Mars sample return missions
  2. Propellant for LEO missions such as Orbital Express
  3. Energy and propellant for human lunar and Martian activities

The long-term markets of space resources include:

  • Energy for Earth through solar power and 3He fusion
  • Raw material to support lunar and Mars outposts
  • Support for space industrialization and space tourism
  • Counter Arguments

    Contrary to using space resources, recycle existing resources is easier to accomplish and comparatively cheap. However, considering issues like runaway greenhouse effect, population growth, self-sufficiency and long-term human presence (Stancati) in space, it is better to colonize space and utilize space resources. In addition, repeated missions to same ore-bodies (Sonter) predict requirements of higher internal rate of return with heavy discounts on sale receipts and “off-optimum” characteristics compared to the first mission or to a different target. Finally, mine operator’s interest in refurbishing or upgrading equipment and non-competitiveness of return missions from trajectory synodic considerations counteract the idea.

    Conclusion

    Earth’s resources being finite as a closed system, energy and materials from outer space being clean and available for millions of years, the solution to the growing human population and resource and energy crisis is utilizing space resources to meet the demands. Space resources have the potential to ensure survival and good living standards for human species and as these resources become more available with better technology, the value of space economy will improve (Komerath).

    Bibliography

    1. Adams, W.M. “The Future of Sustainability: Re-thinking Environment and Development in the Twenty-first Century.” IUCN Renowned Thinkers Meeting. Zurich: IUCN, 2006. 2-5.
    2. Alexander, R., Bechtel, R., Chen, T., Cormier, T., Kalaver, S., Kirtas, M., Lewe, J., Marcus, L., Marshall, D., Medlin, M., McIntire, J., Nelson, D., Remolina, D., Scott, A., Weglian, J. “Moon-based Advanced Reusable Transportation Architecture.” 37th AIAA/ASME/SAE/ASEE Joint Propulsion Conference And Exhibit. Salt Lake City, Utah: Georgia Institute of Technology, 2001. 4-6.
    3. Cohen, J.E. Human Population: The Next Half Century. London: Island Press, 2006.
    4. Cutler, A.H. “Aluminum-Fueled Rockets for Space Transportation System.” McKay, M.F., McKay, D.S., Duke, M.B. Space Resources – Energy, Power and Transport. Washington D.C.: National Aeronautics and Space Administration Scientific and Technical Information Program, 1992. 110.
    5. Freundlich, A., Ignatiev, A., Horton, C., Duke, M., Curreri, P., Sibille, L. “Manufacture of Solar Cells on the Moon.” 31st IEEE Photovoltaic Specialists Conference. Orlando, Florida: Conference Record of the IEEE Photovoltaic Specialists Conference, 2005. 794-797.
    6. Komerath, N.M., Rangedera, T., and Nally, J. “Space-Based Economy Valuation, Analysis, and Refinement.” American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. San Jose, 2006. 1-3.
    7. Lutz, W., Sanderson,W.C. and Scherbov, S. The End of World Population Growth in the 21st Century: New Challenges for Human Capital Formation and Sustainable Development. London: Earthscan, 2004.
    8. Sonter, M.J. “The Technical and Economic Feasibility of Mining the Near-Earth Asteroids.” Acta Astronautica (1997): 637-47.
    9. Stancati, M.L., Jacobs, M.K., Cole, K.J., Collins, J.T. In-situ Propellant Production : Alternatives for Mars Exploration. Washington D.C.: National Aeronautics and Space Administration National Technical Information Center, 1991. 7.
    10. Zaburunov, S.A. “Mines in Space: What is NASA doing?” E&MJ – Engineering & Mining Journal (1990): 16K-16N.
    11. Zubrin, R., Baker, D.A., and Gwynne, O. “Mars Direct: A Simple, Robust, and Cost Effective Architecture for the Space Exploration Initiative.” 29th Aerospace Sciences Meeting. Reno, Nevada: AIAA 91-0326, 1991. 11-14.

    The Higgs Boson – Why bother?

    It is often one of the questions raised in both scientific and religious sectors. Why bother about the Higgs Boson or in common language, the God particle? Is it worth all the money and technology spent to find a particle that may or may not exist? It was a few years ago, that an American named Elizabeth Hershkovitz who shared my interests in cosmology and particle physics mentioned the Higgs Boson. Our conversation caught me seriously thinking about it.

    The Large Hadron Collider at CERN has been in news for the past few months since the claim of the discovery of faster than light neutrinos that allegedly emanated from it. Last week, the noise increased even more with some strong indicators of the presence of the Higgs Boson in both the ATLAS and CMS experiments. It is speculated that very soon a 50-year-old quest will come to an end when more data pours in from the two experiments.

    Discovery and Mechanism

    Nobody wondered why anything would have mass up until early 1960s when Peter Higgs, Philip Warren Anderson, Robert Brout, Francois Englert, Gerald Guralnik, C. R. Hagen and Tom Kibble proposed the famous Higgs Mechanism, laying the theoretical framework for the massive experiments conducted at CERN today. This mechanism has close resemblance to Yoichiro Nambu’s work on vacuum structure of quantum fields in superconductivity and also the Stueckelberg Mechanism studied by Ernst Stueckelberg.

    It was discovered that when a gauge theory combines with an additional field breaking the symmetry group spontaneously, gauge bosons acquired finite mass consistently. Despite the large values involved, it allowed a gauge theory description of the weak force, developed independently in 1967 by Steven Weinberg and Abdus Salam. Though originally rejected, Higgs’s paper was resubmitted to Physical Review Letters, with an additional sentence on the existence of massive scalar bosons which eventually came to be known as Higgs bosons.

    Let me first make sense of all these jargons. Particles roughly fall under two categories viz. fermions and bosons depending on whether they form matter or carry force. The fermions are themselves divided into hadrons and leptons based on whether they interact using the strong or weak force. Further, the hadrons are divided into baryons and mesons according to their quark structure. A gauge is a special coordinate system that varies based on a particle’s location with respect to a base space or a parameter space and a change of coordinates applied to every such location in that system is called a gauge transform. A gauge theory is a mathematical model of a system to which gauge transforms are applied.

    Usually these are gauge invariant, meaning all physically meaningful quantities are either left unchanged or transform naturally under gauge transformations. Symmetry breaking is a phenomenon in physics where infinitesimally small fluctuations acting on a system that cross a critical point decide the system’s fate based on the branch of bifurcation taken. It is used extensively in string theory and other allied theories to explain the initial conditions of our early universe. Scientists such as Higgs calculated that when particles interact with a field that permeates space called Higgs Field, they acquire mass. As mentioned earlier, this concept was required to explain the electroweak symmetry breaking that separates the electroweak interaction into electromagnetism and weak nuclear force where, after the breakage, some part of the left over mathematics manifests itself as the Higgs boson.

    For those who did not understand the tough words described, the mechanism can be thought of as tantamount to the famous “celebrity and mob” example. In a room, where people are evenly distributed, the entrance of a celebrity would change everything. People will try to flock around her and when she moves, the crowd would move along with her making her motion difficult. The workings of the Higgs mechanism can be thought of as something very similar to this. The universe contains the Higgs field at all places and any particle put in this field would interact with it. And the effect of this interaction is what we feel as mass. Simply speaking, the Higgs boson is supposed to be responsible for giving matter, its mass.

    The current excitement at CERN is because of relatively identical results from two separate experiments in LHC. The bar is set very high on the proof of the existence of Higgs boson and only 1 chance in 3.5 million is allowed to be wrong. And the identical results from two different experiments might be indicative that we are getting pretty close. It reminds me of John Schwarz and Michael Greene’s calculations on a night in 1984 when they were eliminating the anomalies in string theory. There was thunder and lightning outside and Greene said jokingly, “The Gods are trying to prevent us from completing this calculation”. It was a metaphor about Gods becoming upset when humans get closer to solving the mystery they created for them.

    The Necessity

    Here again I drill down to the bedrock of the question I asked in the beginning. Why should we bother about Higgs and spend all that money on these massive LHC experiments? It goes without saying that there is an awe inspiring effect when new discoveries in physics and astronomy are made. I see physicists with utmost reverence since they allow us to see through the reality that makes us and everything around us. The Higgs, if discovered, would complete the fundamental theory of particle physics called the Standard Model, which currently consists of 17 particles and 3 fundamental forces. The fourth force viz. gravity is explained by Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity. String Theory, Loop Quantum Gravity etc. attempt at unifying both the standard model and general relativity but I think that is the subject of another article.

    Once complete, physicists can use the standard model as a foundation for something called supersymmetry which predicts heavier sister particles for the already discovered ones. It states that for every fermion, there will be a corresponding boson and vice versa. For instance, an electron might have a supersymmetric partner called “selectron” while the photon will have its supersymmetric partner called a “photino” etc. The mass of these supersymmetric partner particles will again depend on the mass of Higgs itself. Currently, the results pouring from LHC indicates that it is light enough for the occurrence of some of these particles in these experiments. Scientists are also excited by the fact that they can now start looking for the building blocks for supersymmetry as well and see whether they fit the predictions too. Gravitational physics, the crossover between particle physics and cosmology, requires explanation for the mysterious dark matter. And mathematics suggests that the lightest of these supersymmetric partner particles make up the dark matter that hold the galaxies together.

    The most fascinating aspect of mathematical physics is its consistency and predictability. We can create equations to explain current observations and make predictions about the unknown based on the current equations. And history is witness for continuing success and occasional failures of such mathematical models. And those that fail become foundations for more successful theories. Not just in physics, but also in other branches of study this has been going on. Newton, Maxwell, Einstein, Dirac etc. are examples of highly successful theoreticians whose mathematical predictions exactly matched with experiments and observations giving birth to modern science as we know it.

    Famous physicist Eugene Wigner, one of the founding fathers of supersymmetry has stated this phenomenon as the “unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics”. Whether Higgs Boson is a “God Particle”, is a multifarious question. People belonging to religious sectors might see God’s hand in all the predictability of mathematics that has led science to where it is today. Others like me prefer to think that every discovery in science converges into how the universe began through quantum fluctuations in a pre-existing nothingness which is clearly indicated in the mathematics of several scientists including the recent works of Edward Witten and Lawrence Krauss. We need to understand that nothingness itself has certain properties because of which universes can indeed be created spontaneously out of nothing without any recourse to a supernatural creator.

    The Higgs boson, to the common man would sound like the figment of imagination of a group of elite geniuses that doesn’t have anything to do with his everyday life. However, when we look at science, historically there have been many examples where a completely “alien looking” theory became used on a daily basis. Here I would like to use the example of the application of general relativity in satellite navigation that gives GPS the pinpoint accuracy it requires.

    The more we understand the universe, the more beautiful and elegant it becomes. Let’s hope the good news comes before the year ends so that this festive season can be sweeter than all the ones that came before. To quote Halliday, Resnick and Walker, “the universe is full of magical things, patiently waiting for our wits to grow sharper.”

    Bibliography

    1. Czajka, A., Mrowczynski, S. “Collective Excitations of Supersymmetric Plasma.” Arxiv.org. Nov 28, 2010. http://arxiv.org/abs/1011.6028 (accessed Dec 17, 2011).
    2. Economist, The. “Higgs ahoy! The elusive boson has probably been found. That is a triumph for the predictive power of physics.” The Economist. Dec 17, 2011. http://www.economist.com/node/21541825?fsrc=scn/fb/wl/ar/higgsahoy (accessed Dec 17, 2011).
    3. Gardne, E.K. “Purdue physicists pursue Higgs boson; part of international CMS experiment.” Purdue University – University News Service. Dec 16, 2011. http://www.purdue.edu/newsroom/general/2011/111216BortolettoCMS.html (accessed Dec 17, 2011).
    4. Gerson, M. “The search for the God particle goes beyond mere physics.” The Washington Post. Dec 16, 2011. http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/the-search-for-the-god-particle-goes-beyond-mere-physics/2011/12/15/gIQAyIEzwO_story.html (accessed Dec 17, 2011).
    5. Halliday, D., Resnick, R., Walker, J. “Quarks, Leptons, and the Big Bang – A Summing Up.” In Fundamentals of Physics, by D., Resnick, R., Walker, J. Halliday, 1138. Singapore: John Wiley & Sons (Asia) Pte.Ltd, 2001.
    6. Higgs, P. “A Brief History of the Higgs Mechanism.” The University of Edinburg – School of Physics and Astronomy. 2011. http://www2.ph.ed.ac.uk/peter-higgs/history.shtml (accessed Dec 17, 2011).
    7. Reucroft, S. “What exactly is the Higgs boson? Have physicists proved that it really exists?” Scientific American. Oct 21, 1999. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=what-exactly-is-the-higgs (accessed Dec 17, 2011).
    8. Ridley, M. “Inexplicable Particle: Why Even I’m a Higgs Bozo.” Wall Street Journal. Dec 17, 2011. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970203430404577094400690586134.html (accessed Dec 17, 2011).
    9. Tao, T. “What is a gauge?” What’s new. Sep 27, 2008. http://terrytao.wordpress.com/2008/09/27/what-is-a-gauge/ (accessed Dec 17, 2011).

    The Ever-Changing Facebook

    The only thing constant in this world is change or so goes the maxim. As recent events would indicate, there is no more ardent a follower of this maxim than Mr. Zuckerberg and his baby, Facebook. Beginning sometime in September of this year, Facebook has inundated its users with a deluge of changes, most of which are as welcome as cockroaches in your kitchen. Infact, I’ve yet to come across a single user who has had one good complimentary thing to say about them. Be it bloggers or journalists or my friends, they’re all equally resistant to these constant amendments. Zuckerberg’s mantra is that people ought to share more and more with their friends. As he himself says, “The amount of information people share online is increasing on an exponential curve, like a social version of Moore’s Law.” (Newman 2011)

    Keeping in line with this mantra, Facebook has, in the past couple of months or so, introduced the News ticker which provides you second to second update about each and every activity of each and everyone of your friends, irrespective of your need to know. Infact, the ticker effectively makes a mockery of the concept of privacy. Every link or page you like, every conversation you’ve, every comment you make, every article you read, every song you listen to, there’s nothing that’s not in the public domain. Whether you like it or not, all your friends absolutely have to know every activity you indulge in. My question is: what if there’s a comment I wish to leave on a friend’s post that has nothing to do with our non-mutual friends or something I like that I don’t wish to advertise? Is Facebook telling me that the only way I can have a private conversation is through its messaging service?

    Oh yeah, the messaging service. Ever since the incessant changes began, Facebook’s messenger has increasingly become a sham. Your friends can often be online but you can’t see them. They can be messaging you but you won’t be receiving their messages. Infact, you’re often subjected to a default message from Facebook: “Facebook chat is experiencing technical difficulties.” I suppose I’m glad that atleast they realize it. Then there’s the obscure “Other” folder. Introduced in November, 2010 as part of their “Social Inbox” feature, its aim is to filter friends’ messages from those of strangers’. However, in typical Facebook fashion, it’s users weren’t even made aware of its existence. Infact, in an article I happened to come along on www.slate.com, Elizabeth Weingarten elucidates how she suffered at the hands of Facebook’s vagaries when she forgot her laptop in a New York City cab. (Weingarten 2011) The gentleman who found her laptop had sent her 4 messages regarding her laptop but because the poor lady didn’t know of the existence of the aforementioned folder, she missed those very important messages and ended up buying a new laptop. For those of you interested in the article, the link is provided as a footnote below.

    My biggest gripe at present is my friends’ list. I know for a fact that as of this moment I’ve a total of 221 friends. Yet for reasons known only to Facebook the total number of friends is always exactly one less than my actual number of friends. Infact a couple of days ago there were the number was 2 less friends which then rectified to the actual number of friends and is now back to being one less. And yet when I navigate through my friends’ list I happen to see all of them there. Where does the discrepancy arise from then? I guess it’s futile to question Facebook about it. Also, since the changes have begun there’s often a definite delay as to when we receive notifications. A friend could like my post right now but I won’t know about it till later, sometimes for as long as an hour. Delays also often occur while updating your status. I’ve faced numerous instances of updating my status but it not being visible either on my profile or on the news feed or both until hours later. Quite a few of my friends have experienced it too.

    And it’s even more pronounced with Facebook’s new feature, Timeline. Introduced in September, Zuckerberg described it as “the new Facebook feature as all your stories, all your apps and a new way to express who you are.” (Gayomali 2011) Initially introduced as an optional feature, it’s now been officially introduced to all Facebook users beginning 15th December, 2011. We can switch over to it right away or wait for some sort of an announcement to appear on our profile some time soon. One can also refuse to switch to Timeline until it’s inevitably and automatically done by Facebook with you having little say in the matter. If upgraded to now, one is given a 7 day window within which to preview the new format and make any necessary changes, including tweaking your privacy settings if need be.

    This is how Facebook describes it in its blog: “When you upgrade to timeline, you’ll have seven days to review everything that appears on your timeline before anyone else can see it. You can also choose to publish your timeline at any time during the review period. If you decide to wait, your timeline will go live automatically after seven days. Your new timeline will replace your profile, but all your stories and photos will still be there. If you want to see how your timeline appears to other people, click the gear menu at the top of your timeline, and select “View As.” You can choose to see how your timeline appears to a specific friend or the public.” (Aamoth 2011)

    While timeline intends to be cooler and easier to navigate through, the intial reviews have been exactly the opposite. Two of my friends who had switched over to it right at its inception in September, have variously termed it as “another over-hyped Facebook feature” or complained about the fact that navigation is actually tougher now than before. How ironic considering Facebook’s apparent intention is the exact opposite. As stated above, there are problems with status updates often being delayed as well. I only switched over to it yesterday and contrary to Facebook’s expectation, I’m hardly impressed with it. I’m yet to figure out what the big deal about it is and as to what was wrong with the earlier beta version to necessitate such a massive change. And what’s more I’ve already faced a problem with a status update within just 24 hours of switching over. I posted a BBC news item and while it’s visible on the news feed and also as part of the recent activity log, but I’m yet to see it on my Timeline. Of course, it could be some perverse Facebook logic that prevents such updates from appearing on your Timeline. As we well know by now, anything is possible with Facebook.

    At the end of the day, while changes are a good thing, changing something that seems to work absolutely fine can often be a putting off experience. All these constant changes and the attendant navigation and functional problems associated with them can actually turn even the most ardent addicts away. Already there are enough reports of decreased Facebook usage because most people seemed to have reached a saturation point. Does Mark Zuckerberg really wish to lose them all? Yes, we all have established networks on Facebook and are reluctant not only to switch over to new social networks but also to completely stop using Facebook. But as we well know taking your users and their interests for granted is often a dangerous and self-defeating business strategy. Does Zuckerberg really want to risk it all?

    References

    • Aamoth, D. Facebook Makes New ‘Timeline’ Design Available to Everyone. Dec 15, 2011. http://techland.time.com/2011/12/15/facebook-makes-new-timeline-design-available-to-everyone/ (accessed Dec 16, 2011).
    • Gayomali, C. Facebook Introduces ‘Timeline’: The ‘Story’ of Your Life. Sep 22, 2011. http://techland.time.com/2011/09/22/facebook-introduces-timeline-the-story-of-your-life/ (accessed Dec 16, 2011).
    • Ho, E. Screenshot Tour of Facebook’s New ‘Timeline’ Interface. Sep 23, 2011. http://techland.time.com/2011/09/23/screenshot-tour-of-facebooks-new-timeline-interface/ (accessed Dec 16, 2011).
    • Newman, J. Reveal More, Consume More: Facebook’s Big Changes. Sep 22, 2011. http://techland.time.com/2011/09/22/reveal-more-consume-more-facebooks-big-changes/ (accessed Dec 16, 2011).
    • Wagstaff, K. Are You Ready for Facebook Timeline? Nov 18, 2011. http://techland.time.com/2011/11/18/are-you-ready-for-facebook-timeline/ (accessed Dec 16, 2011).
    • Weingarten, E. Furious at Facebook Again! Dec 9, 2011. http://www.slate.com/articles/technology/technology/2011/12/facebook_s_other_messages_mail_you_are_probably_missing.html (accessed Dec 13, 2011).

    Future of NASA and American Space Exploration – An evaluation of Obama’s 2010 Space Policy and Kugler’s Article on Avoiding the end of NASA

    Abstract

    New guidelines for NASA have been proposed by the United States government considering the exploration, scientific and technological projects for the next few decades. This paper evaluates the key aspects of President Obama’s Space Policy of 2010 and Justin Kugler’s article on how the end of the Space Shuttle Era is not the end of NASA (Kugler 8 Aug 2011) with conclusion on the future of NASA considering the current economic and political scenario.

    Space Policy 2010

    Image of Obama Space Policy 2010

    The Space Policy, 2010 of President Obama is reminiscent of Kennedy’s speech on Urgent National Needs except that the goals mentioned are more ambitious as well as challenging in terms of technology, economy and politics. This policy that aims at reinvigorating US leadership in space has far reaching implications and takes into account the overall multidisciplinary nature of space sciences and technologies. His Civil Space Guidelines (Space Policy 28 June 2010) is particularly attractive in that it sets ambitious human exploration milestones as goals like crewed missions in trans-lunar space by 2025 and to Mars by 2030. The policy’s decision to operate the ISS for another decade and beyond and to seek partnership between NASA and private space agencies and encouraging prize competitions in development of various projects like the “Three New Centennial Challenges”(E. Steitz 13 Jul 2010) of 2010 is excellent and positive.

    The major challenges undertaken in this policy worth evaluating are as follows:

    1. Design and build the proposed SLS, heavy lift launch vehicle(Weaver 14 Sep 2011) that is expected to carry the Orion Multipurpose Crew Vehicle in addition to other important cargo, equipments and science experiments to Earth orbit and beyond. This project is a technological challenge that can be achieved only after sufficient funds pour into NASA from the government budget.
    2. Development of orbital debris mitigation/removal technologies as well as collision warning measures through maintaining space object databases and disseminating orbital tracking information to agencies. This can be achieved only through consensus on active debris removal, cooperation to remove objects of other countries, collaboration to accomplish difficult tasks and contributions through cost sharing to engage active debris removal (David 10 Aug 2011.)
    3. Detect, track, catalog and characterize N.E.O to mitigate human hazards from an unexpected impact and also identify potentially resource rich planetary objects(Space Policy 28 Jun 2010.) This currently can be done using the existing technology. However, for unmanned/human exploration of asteroids, development of SLS or any such vehicle is required.

    In addition to these major challenges, NASA’s decision to work on projects like land remote sensing, environmental observation and weather and national security via satellite systems makes clear that the new policy is looking forward to an overall development of the entire space arena and paints a picture of a better future for NASA that will help US maintain its technological and political superiority in space. Despite being very promising, as any new policy, it is still prone to political interference and hindrance to progress due to budgetary constraints. The more ambitious plans like the manned mission to an asteroid by 2025 hasn’t yet gained traction among the lawmakers. The latest concerns come from the heightened uncertainty over NASA’s budget and policy priorities as the new vision for the agency is publicized. Though the Congress has mandated the development of Space Launch System and Multipurpose Crew Vehicle, it hasn’t yet provided budget to the mission. Further, they want NASA to do the SLS project at an even greater constrain than the canceled Constellation program which might as well be pushing it on the same path (Kugler 8 Aug 2011.)

    Lawmakers overseeing NASA generally retain opposed views on the efforts of White House to turn over core agency functions that includes transportation of astronauts to and from the ISS to commercial rocket and spacecraft suppliers and operators. The report submitted by NASA officials in January 2011 to Capitol Hill argues that it is impossible to build a new rocket and capsule similar to Apollo on the budget and deadline specified by lawmakers. None of the options in the new policy, according to NASA, can fly by 2016 unless a significant increase in the agency’s appropriations is made by the lawmakers (Pasztor 15 Jan 2011.)

    It is hence imperative to enforce the guidelines mentioned in Obama’s policy independent of the Congress and with collaboration from the private sector so that appropriations of proper funds can be done to make technological and economic progress in the space sector as envisioned in the policy.

    Justin Kugler on Avoiding “the end” of NASA

    Image of International Space Station

    Justin Kugler sees some of the positive aspects of NASA’s latest policy as well as the current US space scenario which otherwise appears a threat to national security after the end of the shuttle era (Dinerman 1 Aug 2011.) NASA, US government and international partners’ decision to extend the current life of ISS till 2028 (Kugler 8 Aug 2011) despite negative comments from Roscosmos chief Vitaly Davidov about its deorbiting is positive but the possibility of leaving ISS unmanned for sometime after the current astronauts are returned on November 22 due to delays in Soyuz from Roscosmos is not very promising. Phasing out of the space shuttle has indeed created launch issues since US has to currently depend entirely on Russia to get astronauts including American astronauts to the ISS (Leonard 16 Sep 2011) and hence without a new and improved heavy lift launch vehicle and the Multipurpose Crew Vehicle derived from Lockheed Martin’s Orion as described in Obama’s Space Policy 2010, NASA’s own human spaceflight to ISS might be halted for a long time.

    The Congress’s decision to prevent squandering of the $100 billion investment in the microgravity lab in view of NASA’s negotiations with CASIS to manage research and invite partners from various streams is a positive political response. However, lack of leadership from Congress and the White House is pulling back on NASA which should currently be engaged in developing new technologies(Kugler 8 Aug 2011.)

    Imag eof Constellation Altair Lander

    Kugler has rightly criticized both the Bush administration and the Congress for Obama’s cancellation of Constellation program which was underfunded (Achenbach 1 Feb 2011) to make the initial schedule itself and was already en route its ruin before the Obama administration took charge. Kugler is also right about the impending peril of an unhealthy situation in the space arena if Congress continues to stress on the development of SLS and discourages cooperation between the private and public space agencies since competition between the companies will improve low cost technologies that will help NASA and other government space agencies to have access to space. In addition, if the SLS does not materialize, this political stand will become financially risky since neither the vehicle nor advanced technology from the private sector will be built resulting in other space faring nations dominating the space arena (CBS 11 Jul 2011.)

    Conclusion

    Both Obama’s Space Policy 2010 and Kugler’s criticism of Dinerman’s article (Dinerman 1 Aug 2011) point out two key aspects influential in the space arena viz lack of funding and political interference. The space arena is no longer bipolar but is multipolar with fast growing economies eying space-exploration and/or space resource utilization. It is hence important for NASA and the US government to create new laws that will allow technological development and cooperation between nations as well as public and private sector space agencies.

    Image of Soyuz Rocket

    The recent crash of the unmanned Russian cargo spacecraft (Wall 1 Sep 2011) indicates that the Soyuz rocket may not be dependable in future. Unfortunately, Soyuz is the only crew-carrying vehicle available and hence it is imperative that with retirement of the Space Shuttle fleet, private American companies should take over the role of Soyuz to take astronauts to the ISS. It is good news that the agency has given money to SpaceX, Boeing, Sierra Nevada and Blue Origin under its Commercial Crew Development program. As discussed by Kugler, the development of crewed vehicles by these private agencies will generate sufficient competition and cooperation between the traditional and new age space agencies to create low cost access to space.

    Image of James Webb Space Telescope

    Cooperation and joint ventures in space exploration should be the next generation goals of NASA and its partners under the current national economic constraints. Obama’s Space Policy does include international cooperation in space as one of its goals (Space Policy 28 Jun 2010) . However, for reaching the goals described in the Civil Space Guidelines described in Obama’s Space Policy, NASA must increase its budget. The current budget cuts of NASA (K. Mathews 10 Sep 2011) and other impending cuts has essentially jeopardized many projects like the James Webb Telescope and other futuristic Mars sample return spacecraft development. Even the proposed 2012 budget of 18.7 billion dollars (Weaver 14 Feb 2011) may not be sufficient in developing the SLS or the Multipurpose Crew Vehicle while continuing with the existing space science and technology based projects.

    Image of Manned Mars Mission

    Since NASA cannot expect immediate returns from cutting-edge space exploration for the huge investment they require when compared to production and launching of satellites, private enterprises may not be interested in contributing to cutting-edge space exploration thereby pressurizing the government to bear costs of missions to Moon, Mars and beyond. However, as a democratic nation, the government must appease its taxpayers. America’s national debt is currently close to $15 trillion (Knoller 22 Aug 2011) and annual deficit at over $1 trillion (CBO Aug 2011.) The budget call for billions to develop SLS and MPCV (Leone 12 Sep 2011) is against these numbers. In the midst of this economic debt, it is difficult for the nation to quantify the cost of going to the Moon and Mars.

    To conclude, NASA is currently treading on a difficult path with higher goals and equally high economic and political constraints. Considering these constraints, NASA must outsource more components of its various projects or even entire projects to private agencies where immediate financial benefits can be reaped. In cases where the benefits are only long term, international cooperation must be in place. For instance, just like cooperation in orbital debris removal projects, NASA can collaborate with ISRO, CNSA, Roscosmos, ESA and JAXA in trans-lunar and Martian missions since that way, the cost can be shared in addition to the benefits among the participating nations. With privatization and international cooperation, scientific and technological endeavors of NASA will have a bright future.

    Bibliography

    1. Kugler, Justin. “”Avoiding “the end” of NASA.”” The Space Review, 8 Aug 2011. Web. 17 Sep 2011.
      http://www.thespacereview.com/article/1901/1
    2. “China eyes lead in international space race.”” CBS News, 11 Jul 2011. Web. 17 Sep 2011. http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2011/07/11/scitech/main20078365.shtml
    3. “The Budget and Economic Outlook: An Update.”” Congressional Budget Office, Aug 2011. Web. 18 Sep 2011. http://cbo.gov/ftpdocs/123xx/doc12316/Update_SummaryforWeb.pdf
    4. Achenbach, Joel. “”NASA budget for 2011 eliminates funds for manned lunar missions.”” The Washington Post, 1 Feb 2010. Web. 17 Sep 2011. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wpdyn/content/article/2010/01/31/AR2010013101058.html
    5. David, Leonard. “”Space Junk Cleanup Poses Grand Challenge for 21st Century .”” Space. 10 Aug 2011. Web. 17 Sep 2011. http://www.space.com/12602-space-junk-cleanup-grand-challenge-21stcentury.html
    6. Dinerman, Taylor. “”How the End of NASA Affects US National Security.”” Hudson New York, 1 Aug 2011. Web. 17 Sep 2011. http://www.hudson-ny.org/2299/nasa-us-national-security
    7. E. Steitz, David. “”NASA Announces Three New Centennial Challenges.”” NASA. 13 Jul 2010. Web. 17 Sep 2011. http://www.nasa.gov/home/hqnews/2010/jul/HQ_10-162_New_Centennial_Challenges.html
    8. K. Matthews, Mark. “”NASA’s smaller programs could be at risk.”” Los Angeles Times, 10 Sep 2011. Web. 17 Sep 2011. http://articles.latimes.com/2011/sep/10/nation/la-na-nasa-budget-20110911
    9. Knoller, Mark. “”National debt has increased $4 trillion under Obama.”” CBS News, 22 Aug 2011. Web. 17 Sep 2011. http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-503544_162-20095704-503544.html
    10. Leonard, Peter. “”Soyuz lands safely in Kazakhstan, rattles nerves.”” Forbes, 16 Sep 2011. Web. 17 Sep 2011. http://www.forbes.com/feeds/ap/2011/09/16/science-sci-space-station_8683387.html
    11. Leone, Dan. “”Obama Administration Accused of Sabotaging Space Launch System.”” Space, 12 Sep 2011. Web. 19 Sep 2011. http://www.space.com/12916-obama-nasa-space-launch-systembudget.html
    12. NATIONAL SPACE POLICY of the UNITED STATES of AMERICA. June 28. 2010. 11.
    13. Pasztor, Andy. “”NASA Safety Hurt by Policy Disputes, Report Finds ..”” Wall Street Journal, 15 Jan 2011. Web. 17 Sep 2011. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703959104576082451987770460.html?mod=WSJ_hp_MIDDLENexttoWhatsNewsSecond
    14. Weaver, David, Michael Braukus, J.D Harrington, and Dan Kanigan. “”NASA Announces Design for New Deep Space Exploration System.”” NASA, 14 Sep 2011. Web. 17 Sep 2011. http://www.nasa.gov/exploration/systems/sls/sls1.html
    15. Weaver, David. “”NASA Announces Fiscal Year 2012 Budget .”” NASA, 14 Feb 2011. Web. 17 Sep 2011. http://www.nasa.gov/home/hqnews/2011/feb/HQ_11-041_NASA_Budget.html

    Deflecting an asteroid impact – The Technical Feasibility

    Asteroid Deflection Strategy

    Asteroid deflection strategies have been a topic of interest for those enamoured with space studies for ages galore. From NASA scientists to ordinary people they’ve garnered everyone’s attention. Simply defined, asteroid deflection strategies are the “planetary defense” methods[ref]http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Asteroid-impact_avoidance[/ref] using which these near-earth objects (NEOs) are diverted thereby preventing catastrophic occurrences on earth, ranging from tsunamis to impact winters (by placing large quantities of dust into the stratosphere, blocking sunlight)[ref]http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Asteroid-impact_avoidance[/ref]. While the probability of such an event occurring any time soon is deemed scant, certain recent events such as Shoemaker-Levy 9 have created enough headlines to get people wondering.

    Spotting an incoming asteroid

    About 90% of NEOs greater than 1 kilometer in diameter have been surveyed by NASA. On a scale of 1 to 10, a 1 kilometer diameter asteroid is deemed to be the least destructive while a 10 kilometer diameter asteroid is considered catastrophic enough to extinguish all life on earth. These survey programs funded by the NASA have been christened “Spaceguard”. Their aim is to attempt to detect and document all asteroids including and exceeding 140 meters in diameter by 2028.

    Deflection strategies

    Nuclear attack

    Asteroid Nuclear Deflection

    This is often considered the easiest and quickest method. This can be done in one of two ways. A nuclear explosion can be instituted around, on or beneath the surface of an asteroid with the resulting blast evaporating part of the object and throwing it off course. This is a form of nuclear pulse propulsion[ref]http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Asteroid-impact_avoidance[/ref]. However, one can never be certain whether the NEO has been broken into small enough pieces to completely avoid harm. Fracturing a 10 kilometer asteroid into a six kilometer and four kilometer asteroid is great, but they might still be on target for our lovely little planet and carry worldwide devastation in tow[ref]http://io9.com/5861790/how-to-deflect-an-asteroid-attack[/ref]. An alternative method is to have a series of small bombs explode alongside the asteroid but at a distance enough to not fracture the object. The relatively small forces from any number of nuclear blasts could be enough to alter the object’s trajectory enough to avoid an impact[ref]http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Asteroid-impact_avoidance[/ref]. A key factor however is to do so well in advance so as to have the maximum impact.

    Kinetic energy effect

    Asteroid Deflection Kinetic Energy

    This works through the impact of a gigantic, non-explosive object, such as a spacecraft or another NEO, a collision with which to alter the course of the asteroid. This strategy is being pioneered by the European Space Agency using a carrier craft and an impactor that can be released on command.

    Using a gravitational tractor

    Asteroid Deflection Gravitational Tractor

    Proposed by Edward T. Lu and Stanely G. Love, this method involves altering the natural course of an asteroid slowly over a period of time sometimes spanning years. The idea is to have a gigantic heavy unmanned spacecraft hover over an asteroid and divert it from its orbit through the simple mechanics of gravitational attraction. The spacecraft would attract the asteroid towards itself and thus deflect it from its original path. While slow, this method has the advantage of working irrespective of the asteroid composition or spin rate – rubble pile asteroids would be difficult or impossible to deflect by means of nuclear detonations while a pushing device would be hard or inefficient to mount on a fast rotating asteroid[ref]http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Asteroid-impact_avoidance[/ref].

    Attach a rocket

    Based upon a proposal of theoreticians at Johns Hopkins University, attaching a rocket to an asteroid would propel it off of its path enough to avoid an impact with earth. Another method is termed the Madmen approach, in which a series of disassembles are docked on to the asteroid which then use the asteroid to create small pebbles which are ejected away from the asteroid. The presumed advantage is that it would take only weeks or months to reduce asteroid mass and velocity using this method and it would act as a safe alternative to chemical and nuclear explosives.

    Conclusion

    It would be safe to say that it would be in humanity’s interest for several countries to have contingency plans and alternative methods ready in the unlikely event of an asteroid attack occurring anytime soon. Russia has some nascent plans in store while the European Space Agency plans to test its kinetic energy method on a non-threatening asteroid in 2015. In addition, NASA’s constant documenting of NEOs along with the search for effective deflection strategies should let us sleep easy at night.

    Elenin and Levy – More Warnings from Nature?

    Recent activities in the sky have sparked interests in the NEA Research world as news on three potentially hazardous objects viz asteroid 2005 YU55 and the comets ElEnin and Levy hit the headlines in the past few months. Discoveries like these usually cause panic and often incredible and funny speculations and assumptions. Many are already raising questions as to whether we should be concerned or not. The following video shows some of the potentially hazardous asteroids on close encounter with Earth.

    As mentioned in my previous article, 2005 YU55 will pass as close as 0.85 lunar distances or roughly 200,000 miles from earth between November 3 and 13 this year. The closest approach will be on November 8 at 07:13 UT. Though close, there is nothing to be concerned as per the latest reports.

    Image of Elenin as seen by STEREO Spacecraft on August
    Elenin as seen by STEREO Spacecraft on August – Courtesy NASA

    Named after its discoverer, as is tradition, comet Elenin also known as C/2010 X1 to the International Astronomical Union was discovered by Russian astronomer Leonid Elenin on December 10, 2010 using the International Scientific Optical Network’s robotic observatory near Mayhill, New Mexico. It is as a small, icy Solar System body. It should not confused with rogue planets or brown dwarfs or the alleged Tyche or Nibiru. During the time of its discovery, it was roughly 647 million km from the Sun between Jupiter and Saturn’s orbits. Classed as a long period comet, it takes more than 11,600 years to make a single orbit of the Sun and was discovered during one of its rare solar visits.

    In its closest approach to the Sun, Elenin will pass at 0.48 AU on September 10 2011. The chances of collision with the Sun is just speculation as is the passage between Earth and Moon. On October 16 2011, it will pass closest to Earth at 34.9 million km or 0.233 AU from us which is approximately 90 times further than one lunar distance. Except for experiencing some possible tail debris on November 1 as Earth enters the tail of ElEnin, there won’t be any major effects on Earth unlike false claims like earthquakes caused by its gravitational effect since the mass of its nucleus which is about 20 billion tonnes is too small to cause major changes on the Earth or the Moon. Thus, there is not much to be expected of Elenin though some astronomers are concerned since it is speeding up as it closes in on the Sun.

    Comet Levy P/2006 T1 was discovered by David Levy visually using a 0.41-m reflecting telescope, as it passed about 40′ to the north of Saturn just before dawn at around 12h UT on Oct 2, 2006 from his Jarnac Observatory near Tucson, AZ. It was added to the NEO Confirmation page, roughly 8 hours later marking David’s 22nd discovery. His last discovery was the comet Takamizawa-Levy, 12 years ago in April 1994. Its astrometry revealed that it is a short period comet approaching the Sun a little over once every 5 years (5.24 years) with perihelion distance placing it close to the position the Earth occupies in late December. On 2006 Oct 27 at about 03:30 UT, Levy only about 1′ north of the nucleus of the bright galaxy NGC 3521 in Leo.

    Image of Comet Levy P2006T1 and NGC 3521 - Coutesy NASA
    Comet Levy P2006T1 and NGC 3521 – Coutesy NASA

    During its 2006 passage, it achieved an apparent magnitude of ~9.5. Though believed to have been recovered on 03 June 2011 at magnitude 19.8, the recovery was never confirmed by other observatories and the comet was never observed since 01 December 2006 since it only has a confirmed observation arc of 60 days. The next perihelion is calculated to be on 11 January 2012 at 1.007 AU from the Sun. The predicted perigee on 2012-Jan-20 is between 0.15 to 0.20 AU with nominal at 0.18 AU. The predicted apparent magnitude in 2012 might be 7 with elongation of 90°. It is said that Levy will go past above us at a rate faster than our own planet’s orbital velocity on January 29.

    Recently a warning was issued by former NASA consultant and US space expert Richard C. Hoagland that Elenin, is under “intelligent control” and heralds a warning to all humanity of a greater global catastrophe. NASA space scientist David Morrison has reported pretty much the same though he has added that these asteroids and comets will pass at safe distances from Earth. Interestingly, some scientists had previously speculated that the two distinct rows of 8 small circular objects trailing Elenin were UFO’s belonging to an as yet unidentified “extraterrestrial civilization.” Though supported by Hoagland, this claim seems to be just fanciful (or wishful) thinking. In any case, these three objects are not going to hit us or cause any significant global catastrophe as feared by many.

    I wanted to include more spectacular pictures, but strangely WordPress is not agreeing with me today. I will try to add them at a later time.

    Sources:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/P/2006_T1_(Levy)
    http://www.armaghplanet.com/blog/10-facts-you-need-to-know-about-comet-elenin.html
    https://theboldcorsicanflame.wordpress.com/2011/07/page/8/
    http://innidra.wordpress.com/2011/08/27/asteroids-comets-earth%E2%80%99s-close-encounters/
    http://www.birtwhistle.org/GalleryC2006T1.htm