June 29th: Goodbye, Cosmos


Podcaster: Morgan Rehnberg

Title:  Monthly News Roundup: Goodbye, Cosmos

Link : http://cosmicchatter.org

NRC: http://cosmicchatter.org/news/2014/6/5/should-nasa-go-all-in-on-mars
Laser Comms: http://www.space.com/26167-nasa-laser-hd-video-from-space.html
Space Fence: http://www.space.com/26113-lockheed-martin-air-force-space-fence-contract.html
Cosmos: http://cosmicchatter.org/news/2014/6/9/critiquing-cosmos-episode-13

Description:   Cosmos winds down while some programs are just getting started.  A new report doesn’t look so good for NASA.

Bio: Morgan Rehnberg is a graduate student in astrophysics and planetary science at the University of Colorado – Boulder.  When not studying the rings of Saturn, he develops software to help search for asteroids that might hit the Earth.  He blogs and podcasts about astronomy and space science at http://cosmicchatter.org.

Today’s sponsor: This episode of “365 Days of Astronomy” is sponsored by — no one. We still need sponsors for many days in 2014, so please consider sponsoring a day or two. Just click on the “Donate” button on the lower left side of this webpage, or contact us at signup@365daysofastronomy.org.



You’re listening to the 365 Days of Astronomy podcast for June 29, 2014. I’m Morgan Rehnberg and this is the Monthly News Roundup. This episode was recorded June 17th from York, Pennsylvania.


Our top story this month is a troubling report for NASA issued by the National Research Council. A branch of the US National Academies, the NRC spent eighteen months and more than three million dollars studying the US human spaceflight program. Their 286-page report concludes that NASA is neither on track nor properly funded to put humans on the surface of Mars.

Why even go to the Red Planet? The report concludes that Mars is the only fiscally-justifiable goal for manned spaceflight. By stepping back and examining the last few decades of human missions, the NRC found that the research and technology benefits of crewed spaceflight do not justify its cost. That being said, space exploration has proven to be a powerful inspiration for generations of scientists and engineers and has also generated substantial goodwill for the United States on the international stage. Only with these benefits included in the equation is human spaceflight justifiable. Because of this, the NRC suggested that NASA must aim for the inspirational target most technically feasible: Mars.

So the question now becomes, is NASA equipped to go to Mars? Again, the report answers this in the negative. The study is particularly critical of President Obama’s plan for astronauts to study a captured asteroid. This mission, while perhaps challenging, will not result in the development of technologies useful for travelling to, landing on, or working at Mars.

Tying together this whole discussion is the question of cost. Human spaceflight is among the most expensive endeavors we’ve ever performed. Landing men on the Moon cost us about 170 billion dollars. Maintaining the International Space Station has cost about 150 more. Almost assuredly, going to Mars would require an even greater sum. And that’s a budget that NASA simply does not have. In a political climate in which the space agency projects flat budgets for the foreseeable future, the National Research Council estimates that travelling to Mars demands budgetary increases on the order of five percent per year.

So, should we even be going? I think so, but only if we’re willing to fully commit. Human exploration of space is the ultimate go-big-or-go-home scenario. The United States must decide whether it wants to be a space-faring nation. If so, let’s get the ball rolling. If not, there’s a ton of other great science and exploration we can be doing.



Next up this month, a look at progress on the next generation of deep space communication. Since the dawn of the space age, we’ve communicated with satellites and spacecraft using radio waves. Giant dishes located around the Earth send and receive messages from across the solar system and every spacecraft includes a bulky antenna to do the same. Hopefully, that will soon be unnecessary.

The technology that promises to make this possible is laser communication. Lasers offer several distinct benefits over traditional radio communication. Much more focused than a flashlight-like radio beam, lasers can provide the same signal with just a fraction of the electrical power and in a much less bulky package. To top it all off, laser communications could offer hundreds of times faster bandwidth over which to transmit data.

The first-ever deep space laser test was carried out by NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, but it was last year’s LADEE mission that first proved the system could operate reliably. Earlier this month, the International Space Station joined in on the action when it transmitted a 22 megabyte video to the Earth in just 3.5 seconds. To transmit an identical copy via the ISS radio comm system would have taken more than 10 minutes.

With a peak transmission rate of 50 megabits per second, it’s clear why NASA desires to implement this technology in future missions. Some hurdles remain, however. Because a laser beam is so small in comparison to a radio beam, extremely accurate pointing must be achieved in order for a connection to be established. This will likely restrict future use of this system to spacecraft within the inner solar system. Ships at Jupiter and beyond are simply too far away for such a tiny target to be hit. Advances must also be made in error correction to account for atmospheric disturbances within the beam.

Once these barriers are overcome, laser communication systems like the ones found on LADEE and the ISS promise to revolutionize our ability to collect data in space. No longer will missions be restricted by the amount of information they can return to the Earth. Instead, high frequency, high resolution observations may become the norm. And when that happens, we’ll unlock a whole new world of science.



Looking up at night, space seems incredibly empty. And it is, but lurking nearby is an enormous population of hidden dangers. More than sixty years of space exploration has left low-Earth orbit littered with debris. Tens of thousands of golf ball sized objects and hundreds of thousands of coin-sized objects orbit within just a few hundred kilometers of the Earth’s surface. And the threat posed by these objects is not merely academic – the International Space Station has had to dodge several pieces of trash over the years

Where did these objects come from? Some are leftover upper stages from spent rockets. A few others are objects which have drifted away from the International Space Station. But most are the result of a couple of collisions between objects in orbit. Objects this size might not seem that dangerous, but with speeds of more than 27,000 kilometers per hour, an impact between a satellite and even a small piece of debris would be catastrophic.

To understand the risk posed by these objects, the United States Department of Defense has taken the lead in tracking space debris. The military provides a mostly-public database of all objects in orbit about the Earth, but thus far technological limitations have kept our knowledge of these objects incomplete. A contract awarded this month to Lockheed Martin should be the first step in correcting this deficiency.

Lockheed will spend the next four years and about a billion dollars building the Air Force’s so-called “Space Fence.” Basically a more powerful radar system and some corresponding tracking software, the Space Fence will greatly enhance our ability to detect and track tiny pieces of space junk. Once fully operational in 2022, the system will nearly double the region of space monitored and increase the number of observations made ten-fold.

What can we do once we have this information? Not as much as we’d like. For now, there remains no practical way to clean up space. Instead, we have to focus on reducing our future contributions to this mess. If we don’t, every future trip to space will be just a little more dangerous than the last.



Finally, this month marked the end of Cosmos. In thirteen spectacular episodes, Neil deGrasse Tyson and friends took us from deep within the atom to far outside the Milky Way. We encountered scientists obscure and famous, overcame controversies past and present, and discovered how the scientific method works to combine the fragmented work of many into a towering description of our world for all.

The original Cosmos was a landmark of science education. Perhaps for the first time, an actual, honest-to-God scientist sat us down and showed what made science powerful, beautiful, and personal. Carl Sagan showed us that scientists were people, too, and that science was, in every way, a *human* endeavor. It’s a message that is desperately needed and one that this year’s show once again offered in full force.

Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey was a heck of a ride and one that I surely will not soon forget. Importantly, though, the end of this series must not mark the end of big-time science on big-time TV. If Fox or ABC or CBS can run dozens of dramas, comedies, and reality shows every single year, it shouldn’t be unreasonable to expect them to air science content as well. After all, science is the ultimate reality show. As scientists, we may be uncomfortable embracing such an intrusive idea, but embrace it we must. After all, nearly ninety percent of all people on Earth live in a household with a television. That’s an audience that science cannot afford to ignore.



Thanks for listening to this episode of the Monthly News Roundup. For more astronomy news and commentary, visit http://cosmicchatter.org or follow @cosmic_chatter on Twitter. As always, you can contact us with your comments and corrections at cosmicchatter@gmail.com . See you in July!


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