Mars One – Aren’t We Going Too Fast?

Mars One is perhaps the hottest news in the aerospace and astrophysics fields. It gives hope to our species as a next step in becoming in a multi-planet civilization. This highly ambitious project of landing groups of brave men and women on the red planet does however have its fair share of critics some of whom include researchers at MIT and astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. So I am curious to ask. Aren’t we going too fast with this project? Is 2024 the right time for human settlement in Mars?

Lessons from the Past

Every space mission prior to this have had several trial runs. For example the lunar missions involved first sending an orbiter around the moon followed by impactors/landers. While America went onto send humans to the moon the Soviet Union did unmanned sample returns. So it is clear that space missions to any celestial body should be done in stages.

NASA and other space agencies including India and Japan have achieved orbiting and landing capabilities on other celestial bodies. Therefore unmanned missions to Mars with the capability of returning samples from Mars in my opinion should be the next stage. Russia in 2011 attempted the Fobos-Grunt which was a sample return mission to the satellite of Mars called Phobos. The failure of the mission to even leave the Earth orbit proves how difficult it would be to pull off ambitious space programs.

When we talk about Mars missions, most of us only look at the success stories. We must all take a look at the number of Mars missions by both America and the Soviet Union which failed.

The Challenges

The challenges involved in long term spaceflight are quite different compared to missions to Earth orbit or even to the Moon. The biggest challenge is communication. Calculations show that the time delay for radio signals between Earth and Mars can vary from 3 minutes to up to 22 minutes depending on the position of the two planets at any given time. This makes all sorts of “real time” communication known to us useless. It is possible to have a web server orbiting around Mars that periodically synchronizes with servers on Earth. That way a copy of the world wide web can be provided for the astronauts in Mars. Emails can also be taken care with this solution.

However, the early astronauts going to Mars are not going there to use YouTube and Facebook. Their mission can go critical anytime and the time delay between the two planets will make a distress call an impossibility. Further, even if distress call does reach Earth, there is no way a rescue team can be sent and by the time a communication is sent back, the mishap could have already occurred.

This brings us to the second challenge – training. What type of training can equip a person to handle critical situations in an alien environment with no hope of getting help? Can the team be divided in qualifications or should every team member have all the qualifications. I remember one of my previous professors who said that a degree in medical sciences is important for every astronauts going to Mars despite their work. So dual degree specializations like engineering + medicine or physics + medicine should in his opinion become part of learning curriculum for astronauts to Mars. The justification he gave was that no crew would want to be in a situation where their only doctor is dead.

But is medicine the only compulsory specialization? How about instrumentation? Shouldn’t the astronauts who wishes to colonize Mars be masters in instrumentation? Teaching every crew member in everything will increase the cost and not teaching would be risky. So there is a tradeoff between cost and risk. According to Mars One website, the crew will undergo training starting this year until 2024. That is a total of 9 years training. It would be amazing if the crew does survive that training.

The Return

Some candidates selected for Mars One have told that many English people migrated to Australia and never returned. That may be true, but if they really want to return to England they can do that tomorrow. Christopher Columbus did return to Spain after his voyage to the West Indies. Vasco da Gama did return to Portugal after his voyage to India.

I am not being paranoid but let me give a scenario. Like in many science fiction movies, what if there is a life form on Mars that we haven’t yet found? What if this life form infects humans in negative ways? In such scenarios, the uninfected/unaffected crew members must have an option to escape the planet.

There is a difference between being brave and being foolhardy. A mission to Mars is amazing. But it shouldn’t be a suicide mission and definitely not a one-way trip. Even if the intention is to colonize the planet the crew members should have a chance to return home if the mission fails. And when it comes to Mars missions, the past teaches us that failure is part and parcel of it.

The Right Method

With all the problems described above, going to Mars is certainly the most risky and the most costly exploration program ever conceived. As Dr. Tyson already pointed out, private companies aren’t interested in investing in an endeavor with so many unknown parameters and huge risk. According to him this can cause Mars One to fail to get funding.

Should we then abandon the mission? Of course not! We are explorers by nature. Mars One or any other similar missions should never be abandoned. However, there must be some tweaks done to the existing methodology. As I said before, it should be done in stages. The following is a rough sketch of what can be done.

  • Sample Return – All space agencies in the world including the private ones should at least try one unmanned mission that involves going to Mars, taking samples and returning them to Earth. The more such missions we try, the better equipped we will become in preparing for a human spaceflight. This will also teach us about landing and take off with heavy payload on Mars.
  • Manned Orbiter Missions – It is a good idea to send a manned orbiter mission around Mars. Astronauts can spend a few orbits around the planet and return. This will simulate all the necessary physiological and psychological aspects in deep space missions. simulate long term manned spaceflight by send humans in an orbit around the Sun.
  • Space Stations – Orbiting space stations around Mars is a solution to the safety and return problem. The backup crew can live in the space station while the landing party conducts their business. Further, the landing party can come aboard the space station for the backup crew to go down. This will ensure better efficiency. In addition, during distress, the entire mission is not at risk. Perhaps a secondary landing party can be deployed to investigate problems. At least there will be one person to come back and tell the story.
  • Data Banks – Huge data banks with information crafted by specialists from around the world should form the primary reference of the astronauts in addition to the internet facility that I mentioned before. Every possible scenario involving medicine, engineering, planetary geology, biotechnology etc. that the astronauts might find themselves in should be thought out and the solutions must be given. It may take months, years or even decades to develop. But it needs to be done nevertheless.

Conclusion

Though a huge fan of Mars missions, I think we as a species are still not equipped with the technological prowess to pull off a manned trip like Mars One. I certainly believe that we are going too fast with the Mars One mission. 2024 is only 9 years away and we still haven’t fully understood the effects of long term manned space missions in deep space. The only data we have are from long term space station missions and the psychological impacts on the astronauts and cosmonauts who spend a long time in space are not that good. A well planned and well coordinated effort is the way to go. There is no need to rush. There is no space race between any superpowers these days.

References

Mars Orbiter Mission – The Journey Ahead

Mars Orbiter Mission - "Mangalyaan"

Mars Orbiter Mission – “Mangalyaan” (Artist’s Impression)

It makes me proud to write the sequel to the article I had written on 5th November 2013, the day India launched her first mission to Mars. The remarkable level of precision achieved by ISRO scientists while inserting the Mars Orbiter spacecraft also known as Mangalyaan into orbit this morning shows the technological prowess that the country has achieved ever since it started its space programme.

Today as ISRO is celebrating its most critical success, I can’t help but remember the scene from the film Contact where Eleanor Arroway played by Jodie Foster talks about what it means to be a visionary. Seeing far into the future is the mark of all visionaries especially those working on space programmes. It takes a lot of thinking to stop oneself from asking the question, “Will this help common people?” I was asked the same question back on 2008 when the Large Hadron Collider was started. Whether scientific endeavors help people immediately is not the right question to ask in my opinion.

As I have mentioned in one of my previous writings, it is hard to predict what would come out of a new scientific project. For example, nobody knew that nonstick frying pans, PET Scans, WiFi and other things that make our lives more meaningful would come out of research in space sciences and technology. These are things that came as spinoffs while scientists worked on various space related projects. Thus there is no way we can disregard endeavors into space just because they are too expensive.

MOM Mission Summary (Image by ISRO)

MOM Mission Summary (Image by ISRO)

Since I mentioned expense, the MOM is actually less expensive compared to the Mars missions of other countries such as the USA and the former Soviet Union. Even our neighbor who recently had the audacity to declare hostility to us after a bilateral meeting failed to achieve what we have. Even though the mission is less expensive with a small payload, I think we should look at it as a stepping stone to greater missions.

MOM has made India the only country that succeeded in a Mars mission in the first attempt. It won’t be enough to just admire our scientists on a blog post like this but I have to do it nevertheless. Now that we know how to put a satellite around Mars, the next logical step obviously would be to make a landing. But before going that far we must launch more satellite-like missions. Also I think we should try missions that are similar to the Phobos-Grunt of Russia. The ability to bring back samples from such a far away place should be the next stage in our space programme. Returning to Earth is also important for human missions to Mars. Settlement is one thing but the ability to return to Earth equally important

Since we are developing our indigenous lunar rover, we will also be able to develop a Mars rover like the ones used by NASA. So, looking into the future, I can say that we will soon be able to achieve whatever USA and USSR did during the Cold War era. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that the level of success of future missions by ISRO would be even greater than what was achieved by the cold warring nations considering the advancements in technology.

PSLV - The workhorse of Indian Space Programme

PSLV – The workhorse of Indian Space Programme

What more can we think about? Will there be a human spaceflight to Mars by ISRO? Will we overtake NASA before 2030? A quick look at the ISRO website and Wikipedia will reveal that India is indeed taking deep space missions seriously. Next year the solar mission called Aditya – 1 and a mission to Venus is planned by ISRO. And there are preparations already underway for a human spaceflight of a crew of two. And of course there is the Chandrayaan – 2, which as I mentioned before will use a rover.

Thus the time is not far before Indian astronauts walk the surface of Moon and Mars and also venture into the far reaches of deep space. To quote Star Trek, “To boldly go where no one has gone before” will be and should be the motto of our future endeavors into space. As we advance into a high-tech future social issues such as poverty and war would cease to exist as we become a technologically advanced super civilization!

Mars Orbiter Mission – A step in the right direction for India

mangalyaan

Mangalyaan in orbit (Artist’s Impression)

People often criticize scientific endeavors especially the ones pertaining to space travel as a waste of time and money. The Mars Orbiter Mission of India also known as Mangalyaan had its share of criticism throughout its development. In the midst of all this, the craft lifted off to space today, 5th November 2013 at 2:38 PM IST and was inserted into an orbit around the Earth with remarkable precision a few minutes later. This first step is a remarkable milestone in the history of Indian Space Program. Of course it is only the first of the three stages of the entire mission but it is something worth to be proud.

When the Indian Space Program was started in 1969, little did anyone know that India would become part of an emerging Asian Space Race. Our technologically superior neighbor has made excellent strides in the field of space travel. They had their first man and first woman in space using indigenous technology and now they are building their first space station. However, India’s achievements should not be seen in a lesser light because the focus of ISRO is more on unmanned missions. And having been able to start off successfully in a Mars mission is something that should invite our neighbor’s envy.

PSLV-C25 Rocket on the Launchpad

PSLV-C25 Rocket on the Launchpad

Mars has never been an easy target for space faring nations. The first ever mission to Mars was by the erstwhile Soviet Union as early as 10 October 1960. The heat of Cold War would have been probably the driving force to attempt a Mars mission just 3 years after Sputnik. The high failure rate see throughout the historic timeline of Mars exploration had made many a person including me quite apprehensive of the Mangalyaan mission. Even the recent failure of Phobos-Grunt and Yinghuo-1 mission of Russia and China in 2011 made people raise their eyebrows when it was announced that India is eyeing the red planet. It is exhilarating to finally see the probe lift off the ground in the PSLV-C25 rocket. ISRO’s faith in PSLV has paid off once again and we are on our way to become the fourth nation to reach Mars if everything goes according to plan.

India is a country with great economic and cultural divide. It may be justified to ask whether the mission was worth the 4.5 billion rupees spent on it when other national priorities such as women’s education and healthcare in rural India could be easily met with the amount. After all it is just a satellite that will orbit around Mars and send back signals of what it studies. People can ask what difference is this mission going to make. It is a difficult question to answer and would require vast amount of research. However, one thing can be said about it. Comparing India’s Mars mission to that of United States or Russia may be utterly unfair in my opinion. United States and Soviet Union had too much funding during the cold war to perform mission after mission despite the number of failures they encountered. And still they can afford to send rovers and other advanced instruments to deep space and afford to fail in it. This is India’s first interplanetary mission and should be compared to Mariner – 9 of United States which was launched back in 1971. Mariner – 9 was an orbiter mission and that is exactly what Mangalyaan is all about and must be seen as such. It is true that USA and USSR were having landers and rovers back in the ’70s but that fact should not be used to demean India’s mission.

Mars Orbiter Trajectory

Mars Orbiter Trajectory

Mars Orbiter Mission of India is a step in the right direction. We may have poverty and prejudice within Indian society but one must see the bigger picture. As part of the human race, it is our duty to explore and colonize other planets. Saying that it will ensure the continuity of our species might be too much of a cliche but that is most certainly a part of interplanetary mission. Interplanetary missions in its true sense has not yet taken place since that would mean going to a distant planet and coming back. For that reason I am not very fond of the Mars One program that is currently seeking volunteers. A true interplanetary mission must ensure that participants are capable of going back and forth between the planets. Christopher Columbus and Vasco da Gama did not maroon themselves in the places they explored. They did go back to their homes to tell the stories about their journey. It is important thus for any manned or unmanned Mars mission to go there and return in order to be fully interplanetary. Anyway, I feel very proud of my country’s capability to perform a feat that many have failed in. Our two hostile neighbors in my opinion should learn from us instead of taunting us unnecessarily over petty border issues.

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!

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.

    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

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      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
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    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
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    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
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    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

    Apophis! – Earth’s death knell?

    Image of Apophis
    Image of Apophis as a snake in Egyptian Mythology

    Egyptian mythology has a character called Apophis which was an ancient spirit of evil and destruction, a demon determined to plunge our world into eternal darkness. Astronomers reason that the name befits a menace that is currently hurling towards Earth from outer space.

    Scientists for the past few years have been monitoring a 390 metre wide asteroid which is currently classified under the “Potentially Hazardous Objects” category because of its calculated collision course with the planet. Governments have already been alerted to take necessary actions to avoid any catastrophe that might arise if this rock collides with our planet.

    According to an estimate by NASA, an impact from Apophis, which is scheduled to take place on April 13 2036, would generate over 100,000 times the energy released in the nuclear blast over Hiroshima. Thousands of square kilometres from the impact site would receive the direct effect of the impact and the rest of the earth will see the effects of huge amounts of dust released into the atmosphere.

    Image of 99942 Apophis
    99942 Apophis – Courtesy Wikipedia

    Scientists insist on every Near Earth Objects meetings that there is very little time left to decide and act since the technology required to thwart an asteroid would take decades to design, test and build.  Meteorite experts say that it is a question of when and not if such an object will collide with Earth. A meteorite of the size of 1 km and above will cause mass extinction to species inhabiting our planet including us. The possibility of such collisions is in every hundred million years and it seems we are already overdue for a big collision.

    Apophis has been a concern since December 2004 after astronomers projected the orbit of the asteroid into the future and found that the odds of it hitting the Earth is alarming. It was predicted that if it missed Earth in its first approach to Earth in 2029, then the next approach in 2036 might most certainly end in a collision. The object currently has an Aphelion of 1.0987 AU, Perihelion of 0.74604 AU, Semi-major axis of 0.92241 AU, Eccentricity of 0.19121 and Orbital period of 323.58 d or 0.89 a. It has an Average orbital speed of    30.728 km/s, Mean anomaly of 339.94°, Inclination of 3.3315°, Longitude of ascending node of 204.43° and Argument of perihelion of 126.42°.

    Image of Radar Image of Apophis
    2005 Arecibo Radar Image of Apophis – Courtesy NASA

    Currently Apophis is placed at 4 out of 10 in the Torino Scale which measures the threat posed by an NEO where 10 is a certain collision that causes global catastrophe marking it the highest for any asteroid in recorded history. However, the collision in 2029 was eventually ruled out as more data poured in.

    Astronomer Alan Fitzsimmons of Queen’s University, Belfast said that Earth’s gravity will deflect the asteroid on 2029 and that there is a small possibility of the asteroid moving through a region in space called the keyhole. If that happens, the chances of a collision during its next pass in 2036 will be even higher.

    There is no shortage of ideas as to how to deflect asteroids like these. Even dangerous technologies like nuclear powered spacecraft is under consideration. The Advanced Concepts Team at the European Space Agency is leading the effort in designing a range of satellites and rockets to nudge these potentially hazardous objects. According to Prof Fitzsimmons, the advantage of nuclear propulsion is the amount of power it generates though it has not been tested so far. Solar electric propulsion, another promising idea is already being used by several spacecrafts giving us hope that projects like these would work.

    Another interesting method favoured by ESA is the proposed Don Quijote mission which intends to send two spacecrafts at the asteroid. One of them called Hidalgo is supposed to collide with the asteroid and the other called Sancho is supposed to measure the deflection caused by the collision. The test launch is supposed to take place in 2013. Another idea is to use explosives on the asteroid but no astronomer has so far supported the idea since if the explosion takes place close to impact, we might have several fragments hitting us than one thereby increasing the area of damage.

    Image of Apophis Path of Risk
    The path of risk where Apophis may impact in 2036 – Courtesy Wikipedia

    Currently we cannot rule out the possibility of the 2036 impact. However, we need to get our next chance in making an observation of this object which unfortunately will not come until 2013 when we can use radar observations and work out possible future orbits of this asteroid more accurately. NASA argues that the final decision of what needs to be done has to be made at that stage.

    Astronomers like Fitzsimmons and Yates say that the preparation should start before 2013 itself. In 2029, we will know for sure whether the object will hit us or not. However, if the worst case scenario turns out to be true and if Earth is not prepared, then it will be too late. Hence we cannot wait until 2029 and start preparing now itself.

    Spacecraft captures sungrazing comet’s demise – A historical event!

     

    Image of Sungrazing Comet's Demise
    Sungrazing Comet’s Demise Captured by SDO and SOHO – Courtesy NASA

    Scientists witnessed an extraordinary event for the first time in history when NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory stationed in outer space captured a “sun-grazing comet” descending into its demise by melting under the solar heat while grazing the star, reported MSNBC. The high definition imagers of the spacecraft spotted the disintegration that spanned a 15 minute period on 6th July, 2011 which according to SDO officials, has never been observed before.

    This marked the first time a comet has been observed in real time as it disappeared though comets have been spotted near the sun before. “Given the intense heat and radiation, the comet simply evaporated away completely,” said the SDO official. In addition to SDO, another NASA-ESA spacecraft called the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory too captured the comet’s demise and recorded the video of the event. SOHO Scientist Bernhard Fleck said, “This is one of the brightest sun-grazers SOHO has recorded, similar to the Christmas comet of 1996.”

    Due to the angle of the comet’s orbit, it passed across the first half of the sun and appeared to brighten as it was struck by sun’s hotter particles. Astronomers call these type of comets as sun grazers since their path is extremely close to the sun. They are relatively common and are also known as Kreutz comets, after the 19th century astronomer Heinrich Kreutz who first discovered them. Astronomers believe that these comets initially began as a single, giant comet and then broke apart centuries ago.