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Some fantastic news from NASA today: The astoundingly successful and productive Kepler Mission has been extended through 2016! This is a huge relief for space nerds like me who eagerly watch science news blogs for the next big news item from missions such as Kepler. As you may know, Kepler is a space telescope which looks for planets in other star systems. Most specifically, the mission is looking for earth-like planets in other star systems. The mission has already racked up over 1,000 potential planets, and I have absolutely no doubt that it will find and confirm the first true earth-twin in these next 4 years. There was a lot of concern over the future of the mission due to recent NASA budget cuts- many thought the mission might not get funding to extend it even till 2014, so getting funding till 2016 was actually a pleasant surprise. The funding will, however, be up for review again in 2014. Still, this is a huge relief because Kepler has already seen what could be earth-twins, we just have to wait for a second transit to occur to confirm the initial observation. Since these are truly earth-like planets, it takes them roughly one earth year to orbit their parent star. The major worry was the mission would be ended before a second transit could be observed to confirm the planets’ existence. Thankfully we no longer have to worry about that, and it’s only a matter of time before the holy grail of planet-hunting is found.

(Via Universe Today and Bad Astronomy)

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Credit: NASA

First of all, I must make the point that these solar flares and coronal mass ejections we’re talking about will NOT harm us. At most, these can cause disruptions with satellite communications, but nothing more. On Sunday the sun belched forth an M-class (medium) solar flare with earth in the crosshairs. The stream of charged particles from the eruption is expected to reach earth sometime late tonight, and could create auroral displays visible as far south as the great lakes area. The sun is capable of flares much more powerful, that would create auroras visible all the way down here in TN, but they’re rare. I do expect there to be one or two of that magnitude in the next few years, however, as the sun is climbing toward its next period of maximum sunspot activity, known as solar maximum. It is possible that tonight’s flare could be more powerful than expected, and the resulting aurorae visible this far south, but it’s highly unlikely. If you’re in Canada or the northern US, however, I recommend going outside and looking north tonight. You just might get a treat. (Via space.com and spaceweather.com)

UPDATE: Apparently this same sunspot region produced another, more powerful flare last night. This time it was an X-class flare, though still not powerful enough to cause aurorae visible this far south. (Via Bad Astronomy)

Obama’s proposed budget for 2012 is basically in direct opposition to the Republicans’ ideas. The biggest area of contention will no doubt be science and education spending. Obama wants to boost funding for most everything science-related, which I applaud of course. But of course, Republicans want to make huge cuts in most everything science-related. It’s incredibly sad that most Republicans these days take such anti-science, anti-reality stances on issues. These proposed budgets are simply the beginnings of what will likely be a long, knock-down drag-out battle between the White House and Congress, and I hope there can be some concessions that will allow us to continue to grow in the areas of education and technology without vastly increasing the national debt. Granted, even a modest cut in the defense budget would probably take care of all these problems, but will that ever happen? Hell no. (Via NewScientist) Also, check out this nice infographic created by LiveScience.

It is imperative for the future of NASA that you IMMEDIATELY call your congressman’s Washington office and ask they vote YES on S. 3729- NASA Authorization Act of 2010! If you’re in Nashville then your congressman is Jim Cooper and his # is 202-225-4311. The bill is up for a vote TODAY and the session ends this Friday, so if they don’t pass the bill now, NASA will have NO BUDGET for the next fiscal year, which also starts Friday. Phil Plait explains quite well on his blog why you should do this, but honestly, time is of the essence, please take my word for it: it is IMPERATIVE that this bill get passed! If you’re not in Nashville and read this in time, use this link to find you representative and CALL HIM/HER NOW.

Energy and space science rant

September 2, 2010

Rant time.

In case you haven’t been paying attention to the news, there was ANOTHER FUCKING OIL RIG EXPLOSION IN THE GULF. Which is why I’m going to now rant about how terrible fossil fuels are. There is nothing good about them as an energy source. They are filthy/pollute the environment, they’re inefficient, and most importantly they are FINITE. We will run out of them. Thankfully this particular explosion doesn’t seem as though it will cause more oil to gush into the Gulf of Mexico, but they aren’t sure yet. I firmly believe that every nation and every energy company in the world should be focusing 100% of their efforts on ways to eliminate the use of fossil fuels as an energy source as FAST AS POSSIBLE. As long as the world is still relying on them, we are speeding straight down a highway that ends with world wars the likes of which have never been seen, and possibly the end of the human race. Our use of fossil fuels will either lead to so much pollution that the entire ecosystem will collapse, or they will become so scarce that the entire world will go to war fighting over them. The very survival of our species could rely on finding a way to 100% renewable energy. Whether it be from the sun, the wind, the ocean, whatever… 100% renewable and clean energy as soon as possible MUST be the absolute goal, and we must stop at nothing to get there. There are lots of other uses for oil than energy, and dare I say those are probably a necessary evil, at least for a while- virtually all plastic is made from it, along with a host of other things, but those pale in comparison to how much is used for energy. I have no doubt technology will get to a point where we don’t need oil for manufacturing either, but energy should be our #1 priority.

Now for my space rant:

A group of spaceflight’s elite sent a letter to Congress yesterday urging the House Science & Technology Committee to revamp its NASA authorization bill. The group, composed of former astronauts, space industry veterans, and former NASA officials, are asking Congress to make their version of the bill look more like the Senate version, which is much closer to Obama’s initial budget recommendation which was announced in February. Unfortunately middle TN’s own Bart Gordon is the head of said committee. Yo Bart- I expect more from you than this. Look at the facts- Obama is right! I’ve said this many times on here before and I’ll say it again: NASA needs to focus its efforts on exploration beyond low-earth orbit and the moon. The private spaceflight industry is more than capable of taking over the job of getting our astronauts to and from the International Space Station, and can be capable much sooner than NASA could using its currently-under-development Constellation Program. But they need the help of NASA in the form of $$$. Less $$$, mind you, than we would spend on Constellation. We will never see the kind of innovation and progress again that we saw from NASA in the 1960’s unless their goals are ambitious and lofty. Putting a man on an asteroid and eventually on Mars should be the new main goal of NASA’s manned spaceflight program, and exploring the moons of Jupiter and Saturn should be the main goal of the unmanned (robotic probe) programs. Those are the kind of ambitious goals that will bring back the kind of innovation and tenacity of the 1960’s. Only this time it will be scientifically driven, not driven by a race to get to the moon before the Russians.

Rant: over.

Today President Obama will speak at the Kennedy Space Center and unveil his updated vision for space exploration to the public and to NASA. The original plan he put forth in Feb. was met with harsh criticism because it canceled the entire Constellation program and left the job of getting astronauts to the International Space Station and low-earth orbit entirely in the hands of private industry after the scheduled termination of the Space Shuttle program in 2015. A few days ago intentionally-leaked information hit the blogosphere and rumors abound about what his updated plan will look like. The biggest rumors are that he’ll be injecting an additional $6 billion over the next few years specifically targeted at development of a heavy-lift launch vehicle. This rocket would primarily be for getting parts of a larger spacecraft into orbit, and no doubt that larger spacecraft will be intended to take humans to Mars and other solar system destinations. The other big rumor is that he wants to bring back one component of the gutted Constellation program- the Orion crew capsule. Instead of being the primary method of getting US astronauts to the ISS, however, it will simply serve as a US escape capsule attached to the ISS. This would alleviate the problem of US astronauts relying on the Russian Soyuz capsule as an escape pod. More on these rumors can be found at Universe Today and Space.com.

I will be watching the live coverage of Obama’s speech on NASA’s website. The streaming video starts at 12:30pm CDT, and Obama’s speech is scheduled for 1:40pm CDT. I’m looking forward to seeing just what he has in mind and how well he sells the idea to the skeptics and naysayers.

For the record, as I’ve said before, I’m totally behind his plan, and not just because I’m a liberal and I voted for him. NASA has gotten into a rut ever since the Apollo era, mostly due to political bullshit. They’ve done some awesome stuff, but the drive to explore new horizons has largely been lost. With the budding new private spaceflight industry there’s no reason why NASA can’t utilize them to do the simple, routine tasks of getting us to the ISS and low-earth orbit. NASA would be spinning its wheels and wasting money to focus on that task. To fulfill its original purpose, NASA need to focus its efforts getting us further into our solar system- Mars, asteroids, and robotic explorations to places like Saturn’s moons Titan and Enceladus, and Jupiter’s moon Europa, all of which have exciting potential as homes for microbial extraterrestrial life.

So tune in to Obama’s speech at 1:40 today, and in the meantime, check out astronomer Neil Degrasse Tyson’s comments on NASA’s future, from a recent Q & A session at the University of Buffalo.

(Via Bad Astronomy)

It’s been a minute since I mentioned the NASA budget/direction controversy, so here’s a bit of an update:

Lots of NASA employees and contractors in the vicinity of Cape Canaveral have launched a campaign against Obama’s budget cuts/change of direction for NASA. They are doing this because when the shuttle program winds down later this year, and the Constellation program gets ousted altogether, there won’t be nearly as many jobs in the area. That’s a legitimate concern, but in the big picture, I say it’s a necessary evil. Besides, these people are engineers, scientists, etc… they are all very smart and quite capable of finding work in other areas, maybe even for the private companies like SpaceX that will take over the duties of getting cargo and astronauts to the International Space Station. I am all for Obama’s plan, because it pushes NASA to look ahead into exploring the rest of our solar system. That’s where the REAL science/discoveries happen. In reality the space shuttle is a dinosaur- it’s expensive to maintain, and it’s not safe. It has no bailout system whatsoever, so if something goes wrong (see: Challenger and Columbia), the astronauts inside are screwed. It is most definitely an impressive piece of engineering, but it’s time to move on. NASA can NOT continue spinning its wheels, never getting us past the ISS and/or low Earth orbit. NASA needs to focus its efforts/money on projects like the VASIMR plasma rocket engine, which could cut a spacecraft’s trip to Mars from 6 months to roughly 40 days. The new commercial spaceflight companies will be more than capable of handling NASA’s cargo and low Earth orbit needs much sooner than NASA could on its own via the Constellation program. End of rant.

In some happier science news, Google is developing a new thermal mirror energy system that could cut the cost of electricity to 5 cents per kWh. This would make solar thermal energy much cheaper than coal. These stations are made up of a huge array of mirrors arranged so that they create one gigantic parabolic mirror. The parabolic shape reflects all the sunlight into one point, at which a heat-collecting device is mounted (on top of a tower), which in turn heats water into steam that runs a turbine to generate power. Naturally this system is only good for areas which receive a lot of sunlight such as deserts, but if Google can make them cheap to build, they could play a big part in getting the world weened off of fossil fuels for energy production. As I’ve said before, we shouldn’t be fiddling with ways to cleanup our use of fossil fuels, we should be focusing eliminating our dependence on them altogether. (Via EcoGeek)

Finally, the earthquake that rocked Chile over the weekend may have actually shortened the length of a day. Granted the current estimate is that our day was shortened by only 1.26 milliseconds, but that’s still pretty amazing. Not only did the day shorten, but the figure axis was also offset by about 3 inches. Think of how big this planet is… that earthquake had to release an unfathomable amount of energy to actually alter its axis! (Via Space.com)

As expected, today Obama submitted his budget proposal for NASA, which includes cutting the Constellation/Ares rocket program. Under the new plan, he wants to pursue commercial options for getting people to low-earth orbit, and focus NASA’s main efforts on exploring the rest of the solar system. This will no doubt meet some resistance in Congress and the Senate, but overall I think it will go through. I’m starting to agree with it more and more. The biggest reason is that companies like SpaceX will probably be capable of safely transporting our astronauts to the ISS much sooner than NASA’s Ares rockets could have (without a massive and utterly impossible funding boost). Read more details at Space.com and at Discovery news.

Now enjoy these two nice nuggets via yewknee’d:

Unhappy Hipsters

Sky:

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