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Findings with Gravity: NASA’s Upcoming Lunar GRAIL Mission January 20, 2011

Posted by Nick Azer in : GRAIL, gravity, interior composition, mass concentrations (mascons), Raytheon, space conflict , add a comment

NASA is launching a new lunar orbiter mission this year, and it’s one whose findings will carry a lot of gravity: the Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory (GRAIL)!

Utilizing nifty twin spacecraft, the mission (to be launched in Fall 2011) will map out the interior structure of the Moon in unprecedented detail, helping to reveal mysteries of its gravity and just how the Moon’s geologic thermal evolution unfolded.

A sister project of sorts to GRACE—successful twin satellites that have been measuring Earth’s gravitational fields since 2002—GRAIL is part of the NASA Discovery program, an initiative to develop smaller, cheaper, faster science missions to tackle objectives similar to more unwieldy missions of the past.

The Moon’s interior has been in the news lately; GRAIL’s findings will deepen (literally) this kind of knowledge, which could lend itself to understanding not just the Moon better, but also other bodies in the Solar System.

The findings will also help understand more about why the Moon’s gravity is “lumpy”. Yes, lumpy:

“The Moon is extraordinarily lumpy, gravitationally speaking. I don’t mean mountains or physical topography. I mean in mass. What appear to be flat seas of lunar lava have huge positive gravitational anomalies—that is, their mass and thus their gravitational fields are significantly stronger than the rest of the lunar crust.” -JPL planetary scientist Alex S. Konopliv, “Bizarre Lunar Orbits“, Nasa.Science.Gov

These lumps—called mass concentrations, or ‘mascons’—are tied to five maria on the near side. Why, exactly, is a mystery; one the GRAIL hopes to unravel.

Another interesting fold to the mission is the origin of the spacecraft design: the Airforce’s controversial XSS-11 satellite. Launched in 2005, the XSS-11 was seen by many as a step towards the U.S. military’s goal of ‘operationally responsive space’; the mission raised concerns that the design could later be used as a weapon to attack foreign satellites. (See Raytheon’s page on responsive space for more on the military concept.)

But, for now, we’ll be seeing the XSS-11 design put to peaceful (and awesome) use with the Moon. Success for GRAIL could open the door to more affordable missions across the solar system, and potentially more such practical missions to the Moon…and hopefully, with no costly satellite dogfights along the way. :)

A Review of "Moon", Part 2: Lunar Ethics July 21, 2009

Posted by Nick Azer in : ethics, Lunar conservation, space conflict, space law , add a comment

This is Part 2 of 2 of my review of Duncan Jones‘ film “Moon“, starring Sam Rockwell. Part 1 looks at the film, while Part 2 discusses the lunar colonial topics that the film brings up.

While a great piece of sci-fi for anyone, this film also does a tremendous job bringing up lunar colonial topics, and serves as something of a warning about the way things could play out.

Before getting into the details, I first gotta give props to the intro: the film starts out with a mini-commercial by Lunar Industries, the main character (miner Sam Bell)’s employer. It describes fusion power, and how at the time of the film power concerns are a ‘thing of the past’ due to the efforts of miners (like Sam) collecting helium-3 on the Moon. I was pleasantly surprised to see such a detailed and up-front look at fusion power within the film; I would have been happy with a passing comment, but this not only sets the film up well, it also augments public media and knowledge on the subject significantly (a mini Convenient Truth :) ).

The really significant discussion brought up by the film, though, is on lunar ethics.

With such a lucrative and important operation, our main character (without delving into spoilers too deeply here) ends up being abused as a worker to a level bordering slavery. His employer is shown as being unscruplously concerned with the bottom line, at a severe expense to Sam Bell’s existence.

While the form of abuse has a high-concept sci-fi bend to it, the attitude of his employer is something that will be very real. Not immediately, perhaps; the initial companies and governments embarking on colonization over the next 10-15 years will be at least in the spotlight enough to enforce noble behavior, if not intrinsically noble of heart and intention.

The bottom line is that moon operations will be costly, if lucrative, ones. Every frontier in man’s history has had its share of unscruplous actions, especially post-industrialization. The moon, in particular, is both distant and apparently desolate. Therefore, as moon colonization becomes more commonplace over the 2020′s and 30′s, companies may start to think they could get away with dumping waste; sub-par tourist safety; bad labor policies; sabotage; and any other assortment of ills, with little or no concern for the health of future colonists or socio-political ramifications.

The most lasting impact of this film may end up being its prescience: a watchdog film that can be utilized in the future by the public, as something to point to for prevention of deeds such as Lunar Industries’ in the film. The themes can be applied to corporate behavior and past eras in general, but our era is the lunar colonial one, and this film is going to be an extremely valuable entry of pop culture to wield in the future as lunar law,governance, and other socio-political aspects begin to take shape.

Unscrupulous behavior can be prevented with measures in place, and “Moon” will be useful in illuminating  the challenge and its importance. And what better film is there than a useful one? I couldn’t be more glad to see that this film (and to a lesser extent, WALL-E) is bringing up these subjects before they become out-of-control problems, and before great injustices to the future of the Moon are done :)

Obama Administration Space Report Coming in December?; Obama Seeking Space Weapons Ban January 26, 2009

Posted by Nick Azer in : NASA, Obama, space conflict , add a comment

There’s an analysis article from Reuters today highlighting the Obama policy statements on the official White House site regarding the seeking of a space weapons ban (“The Obama-Biden Administration will restore American leadership on space issues, seeking a worldwide ban on weapons that interfere with military and commercial satellites”), but something I found even more notable is a quote at the end of the article from a defense official:

“Another defense official, who asked not to be named, said the new administration would work through the complex military space issues during a defense review to be completed by September, and as part of a space report due in December.”- “Challenges loom as Obama seeks space weapons ban“, Andrea Shalal-Esa, Reuters

While Obama’s interest in a space weapons ban was noted in his detailed campaign space policy document, this ‘space report due in December’ gives some new insight into the Obama administration’s timeline as far as movement on the space front.

Considering how in-depth that campaign space plan was, and the extent of NASA’s Constellation program, this could be an extremely significant report–save the date!

As far as an international treaty banning space weapons, it’s an idea that sounds like a tough sell, but that has been supported by Russia and China as recently as February 2008.

Such a treaty theoretically could not only address satellite warfare, but intralunar relations and potential weapons systems on the Moon—a ban or limit on lunar weapons systems is probably critical to successful colonization, due to the expense and resources involved (the risk is high enough as it is). While colonial wars have been more than a little common in human history, and both Mars itself and NASA’s new Ares rockets are named after the god of war/bloodlust, lunar colonization could prove to be an opportunity to forge a new tradition…if at least out of convenience (mining helium-3 will be harder when being shot at), if nothing else.

Space Knights? Virgin Territory for the Pentagon October 19, 2008

Posted by Nick Azer in : NASA, private sector, space conflict, space tourism, spaceplane, Virgin Galactic , add a comment

The Times Online has a story today about the Pentagon planning a “spaceplane” that could deliver troops (or supplies) to an emergency zone within four hours.

Codenamed “Hot Eagle”, the craft is designed closely off of Virgin Galactic and Scaled Composites’ WhiteKnight craft, which Burt Rutan carried to a collection of the $10 million Ansari X Prize in 2004.

A government picking up on a private spacefaring design is an interesting precedent. Barack Obama, in his space plan, talked of using the private sector to “amplify NASA’s reach“; but this is a whole another level of interaction between government and private enterprise (and it’s happening already!).

The Pentagon hopes to have these craft in use within 11 years (2019). Check out the article for a lot more of the details and background.

One interesting angle (excuse the pun): these same craft could fly someone commercially from London to Sydney in four hours. Now that’s executive class.

Barack Obama Outlines Extensive, Detailed Space Plan (News) August 17, 2008

Posted by Nick Azer in : Astrobotic, Current News, economy, McCain, National Aeronautics and Space Council, Obama, Operationally Responsive Space, private sector, space conflict , 4comments

Today, presidential candidate Barack Obama has released a new, extensive plan for the future of American space exploration. (John McCain’s plan; I’ll put up a full analysis of McCain’s corresponding plan in the coming days.)

Obama’s plan is a big one: a total of 3,486 words and six pages as a PDF (versus McCain’s, which has 989 words), with plenty of details and specifics. Some moon colonization-specific highlights:

To summarize, the most significant info one can take from this plan is probably the rather specific nature of his commerical sector statements: “Unleash the genius…”, “amplify NASA’s reach”… Mr. Obama sounds very serious about spurring the private sector, and his related points in the plan are some of the least generic of report.

Often time, big economic booms in America are spurred by the rise of new industry (the World War II build-up, the 90′s internet boom), and with the economy in the state it’s in, perhaps Obama sees the potentially explosive commercial space industry as one of the ways out.