Monday, June 21, 2010

The country that invented the Walkman may be back on track to burnish its image as a technological pioneer. Right now, more than 4.7 million miles from Earth, is a revolutionary spacecraft that could be the future of interstellar travel. Japan's space program, JAXA, confirmed on June 10 they had successfully unfurled the world's first solar sail — a spacecraft that uses the velocity of sunlight to propel it. Then, just three days later, Japan announced what could be an even more impressive accomplishment: a spacecraft that left Earth seven years ago had returned home. Before brilliantly burning up over Australia, the ship ejected a soccer-ball-sized pod — a modest container that may contain the first fragments of an asteroid ever brought to earth and provide clues about the origins of our planet. Not bad for a spacecraft running three years behind schedule and without three of its four engines.

These space exploits couldn't have come at a better time for Japan's space agency. With a stagnant economy and massive public debt, the new Prime Minister Naoto Kan has promised to make cuts to Japan's sprawling bureaucracy, and JAXA will surely come under scrutiny. During the previous administration, the Wall Street Journal reported that the government revitalization unit recommended in April the space agency start raising more money from the private sector. Before that, JAXA requested almost $19 million to develop a follow-up asteroid project, but the Hatoyama administration only allocated a meager $330,000. These were not encouraging signs for the future of the agency, and this from the Prime Minister whose wife once claimed aliens took her soul to Venus in a triangular spacecraft.

The solar sail may look low-tech, resembling a silver tarpaulin with a hole in the middle, but its successful mission could help future trips to the outer reaches of our solar system. JAXA's Interplanetary Kite-Craft Accelerated by Radiation of the Sun, better known as IKAROS, will be the first spaceship powered without any rocket fuel. Unlike its mythological namesake, in which the Greek god Icarus flew too close to the sun and melted his wings, Japan's IKAROS will use the force of the sun's photons against its sail to propel it closer and closer to the sun. IKAROS' first stop is Venus, and then hopefully the unmanned spacecraft will push past the planet to the far side of the sun. Ships like IKAROS powered by solar sails may not be the fastest spacecrafts, but they're much cheaper than rocket-fuelled ones. Makoto Miwada, a JAXA spokesman, says the IKAROS test will be half the price of a typical large satellite launch. "This satellite is rather cheap," he says.

If all this sounds like science fiction that's probably because until recently it was. Solar sails have been featured in science fiction since the early 1960s and even made an appearance in James Cameron's Avatar. The goal of the IKAROS project is to test the feasibility of using sunlight to maneuver a spaceship, and a lot could still go wrong. With the sail's membrane as thin as 0.0075 mm — less than one-sixth of the thickness of a newspaper page — it's extremely fragile, and nothing like this has been done before. Already though, the Japanese succeeded in unfurling the sail in space, something that American groups have failed at doing in two previous attempts, according to the Sydney Morning Herald. In this case, JAXA weighted the corners of the sail. The slow spin of the spacecraft caused centrifugal force to open the sail to full extension.

Japan's second space feat last week points more toward the past than the future, back some 4.6 billion years to the formation of our solar system. JAXA launched the Hayabusa in 2003. The space probe took more than two years to reach its target, the Itokawa asteroid, considered a "near-Earth" asteroid. It was only about 185 million miles away when the Hayabusa arrived. Since then things haven't exactly gone smoothly. There was a fuel leak, a tool for collecting rock samples that failed to deploy and a 50-day communications blackout, and by the end of the mission three of craft's four ion engines had broken. It even missed its initial window home and had to return to Earth three years late. With all the delays, the Hayabusa broke the record for the longest voyage in space.

Despite the glitches along the way, the Hayabusa project is already a landmark mission. The Hayabusa's journey was the first ever round-trip to a celestial body other than the moon. The craft has determined Itokawa's size, shape, density and approximate makeup. Still, the real boon was bringing the first asteroid samples home, where more detailed analysis could take place. The Hayabusa disintegrated as it re-entered the earth's atmosphere on June 13, creating a brilliant display over central Australia — "like fireworks" says JAXA's Miwada. But a few hours before burning up, it successfully ejected a small pod that likely contains the first asteroid fragments brought back to Earth. The capsule was located in the Australian outback and returned to Japan on June 17, still apparently sealed. Miwada says it could take months to know exactly what's in there; after seven years of waiting, no one wants to risk contamination. It will be disassembled in a special isolation system so it's not exposed to the atmosphere. Says Miwada: "We may find many particles, and we have to analyze every one and judge whether it's an earth particle or a space particle."

Scientists at both NASA and JAXA say it's likely the Hayabusa has returned at least some asteroid material, and scientists don't need much to determine its exact composition. Asteroids are among the least changed objects in the solar system, and understanding what they're made of can give scientists clues to the origins of our planet. "We'll be looking at leftover debris from the early solar-system formation process," says Donald Yeomans, a manager at NASA's Near-Earth Object Program Office. "[Asteroids] offer an excellent window into the chemical mix and temperature environment at the time the planets formed."

Miwada says locating the capsule in the Australian bush was a "special moment" for the JAXA team. And it's not just the scientists who are proud. In Japan, the public has started to refer to the Hayabusa as Hayabusakun, adding an affectionate suffix to the spacecraft normally reserved for boys or young men. At a JAXA office in Tokyo, according to the daily Yomiuri Shimbun, one visitor wrote, "I'm very happy — I feel like my son has come back home." With a moribund economy and another new Prime Minister, the JAXA accomplishments over the past 10 days have given a country a reason to look away from its earthly problems and get satisfaction from the heavens. As another visitor to the JAXA office wrote, "Sick of gloomy days caused by the recession, Hayabusa's story has made me really happy. From tomorrow I'll be able to work more cheerfully." It's no wonder, then, that Prime Minister Kan said last week he's considering raising the budget for Hayabusa II.

Read more:,8599,1997768,00.html#ixzz0rWGbar4N

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Titan: Nasa scientists discover evidence 'that alien life exists on Saturn's moon'
Evidence that life exists on Titan, one of Saturn’s biggest moons, appears to have been uncovered by Nasa scientists.

By Andrew Hough
Published: 8:30AM BST 05 Jun 2010

Artist's impression of a mirror-smooth lake on the surface of Saturn's smoggy moon Titan. Photo: NASA Researchers at the space agency believe they have discovered vital clues that appeared to indicate that primitive aliens could be living on the planet.

Data from Nasa's Cassini probe has analysed the complex chemistry on the surface of Titan, which experts say is the only moon around the planet to have a dense atmosphere.

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Astronomers claim the moon is generally too cold to support even liquid water on its surface.

The research has been detailed in two separate studies.

The first paper, in the journal Icarus, shows that hydrogen gas flowing throughout the planet’s atmosphere disappeared at the surface. This suggested that alien forms could in fact breathe.

The second paper, in the Journal of Geophysical Research, concluded that there was lack of the chemical on the surface.

Scientists were then led to believe it had been possibly consumed by life.

Researchers had expected sunlight interacting with chemicals in the atmosphere to produce acetylene gas. But the Cassini probe did not detect any such gas.

Chris McKay, an astrobiologist at Nasa Ames Research Centre, at Moffett Field, California who led the research, said: “We suggested hydrogen consumption because it's the obvious gas for life to consume on Titan, similar to the way we consume oxygen on Earth.

"If these signs do turn out to be a sign of life, it would be doubly exciting because it would represent a second form of life independent from water-based life on Earth.”

Professor John Zarnecki, of the Open University, added: “We believe the chemistry is there for life to form. It just needs heat and warmth to kick-start the process.

“In four billion years’ time, when the Sun swells into a red giant, it could be paradise on Titan.”

They warned, however, that there could be other explanations for the findings.

But taken together, they two indicate two important conditions necessary for methane-based life to exist.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Six would-be cosmonauts have entered a sealed facility where they will spend 18 months with no windows and only e-mail contact with the outside world.

The men are taking part in the Mars500 project, which aims to simulate a mission to Mars.

They entered the craft, located at a medical institute in Moscow, just before 1100 BST on Thursday.

Scientists say the study will help them understand how humans would cope on a long journey to another world.

During a press conference on Thursday morning, the six men - three Russians, two Europeans and a Chinese man - all described what motivated them to take part in the experiment.

Twenty-six year old Wang Yue from China, the youngest of the volunteers, said he was excited to be involved in a project that he felt would be "excellent for science and for all of humankind".

French volunteer Romain Charles acknowledged that it would be a "difficult" mission and said that he would miss his family and "the Sun and fresh air".

Space on Earth
The project has been designed to be as realistic as possible even though some elements - such as the weightless conditions of spaceflight - cannot be recreated here on Earth.

"They will have to cope with limited consumables, for example," said Dr Martin Zell from the European Space Agency, a key partner in the project.

Continue reading the main story
When the very first human steps on Mars, I will be able to say, 'yeah, I helped do that'
Diego Urbina

European Mars500 participant
"That means everything will be onboard at the start. There will be no re-load, re-supply whatsoever. It will be like a real mission."

The craft is based at Moscow's Institute of Biomedical Problems and comprises a series of interconnected steel canisters. The total interior volume is about 550 cubic metres.

Four of the tubes provide the living and working environment on the "journey" to and from Mars. Their interior has been decorated with wood panelling to give the cylinders a more homely feel.

A fifth module is a mock-up of the Red Planet itself, an enclosed room with a floor covered in rocks and sand.


MEDICAL MODULE: The 12m-long cylinder acts as the laboratory. Should a crewmember become ill, he can be isolated and treated here

HABITABLE MODULE: The main living quarters. The 20m-long module has beds, a galley, a social area. It also acts as the main control room

LANDING MODULE: This will only be used during the 30-day landing operation. There is room only for the three crewmembers who will visit the "surface"

STORAGE MODULE: The 24m-long module is divided into four compartments, to store food and other supplies, to house a greenhouse, a gym a refrigeration unit

SURFACE MODULE: To walk across the soil and rocks of Mars, crewmembers must put on Orlan spacesuits and pass through an airlock

About half-way through the mission, three of the crew will have to "land" on this "surface" and walk about on it while dressed in heavy space suits.

The "cosmonauts" will be commanded by 38-year-old marine engineer and astronaut trainer Alexey Sitev, who has only recently been married.

His compatriots - Sukhrob Kamolov (32) and Alexander Smoleevskiy (33) - have medical backgrounds. The two Europeans in the group - Diego Urbina (27) and Romain Charles (31) - are engineers by training. Wang Yue has a "day job" training Chinese astronauts.

Near a hundred experiments will be performed during the "journey" Colombian-Italian Diego Urbina said his motivation came from his desire to work in space research.

"I'm also very interested in being a part of the story of getting humans to Mars," he told BBC News. "When the very first human steps on Mars, I will be able to say, 'yeah, I helped do that'. That will make me feel very proud."

Scientific investigations during the experiment will assess the effect that isolation has on various psychological and physiological aspects such as stress, hormone levels, sleep quality, mood and the benefits of dietary supplements.

Dr Berna van Baarsen, from the Free University Medical Center, Amsterdam, Holland, is a principal investigator on Mars500.

"We expect Mars500 to have Earth applications, in understanding group dynamics connected to isolation and loneliness, for example," she said.

"I hope it will also help us understand better some groups, such as those elderly people who are isolated in their homes. It should tell us about coping behaviours."

The experiment even simulates surface operations at the Red Planet The spaceship itself will come under scrutiny, also, as the crew monitor their surroundings to see which types of bacteria take hold and thrive in the enclosed space.

All of the results of these investigations will have to be emailed to "mission control" as the organisers of the project intend to introduce a 20-minute, one-way time-delay in communications to mirror the real lag in sending messages over the vast distance between Mars and Earth.

"Everything will be done in a telemedicine environment, where the crew has to do the analysis and we receive the data by telemetry," said Dr Zell, who heads up Europe's space station utilisation programme.

This 520-day mock mission with its 30 days of "surface operations" is the final phase of the three-part Mars500 project.

Look around the spacecraft that will be the crew's home for almost 18 months
There have already been two smaller studies, one lasting 14 days and another taking 105 days to complete.

Space agencies describe Mars as the "ultimate destination" for human explorers. However, they do not possess the technology to complete such an endeavour and are unlikely have it for many years yet.