Astronotes: June 27 - July 10, 2004

July 9

Sphere of Influence: Airships in the Round

Here's an uplifting story.

Techsphere Systems International (TSI) of Columbus, Georgia is making low-, mid- and high-altitude spherical airships. Immediate market opportunities for the airships are in homeland security, defense and telecommunications.

However, one bazaar of the bizarre that the company didn't count on is increasing the number of UFO sightings. That's what happened during a recent test flight near Washington, D.C.

These helium-filled airships are being crafted to carry payload packages on stationary, long endurance, unmanned operations at varying altitudes. Unlike satellites, the aerial platforms can easily be retrieved and payload packages can be recovered and upgraded for further use.

Different models of the airship are being fabricated to fly in both piloted and automated mode, and can be continually retrofitted to accommodate new applications or technology, a company release explains.

For instance, the firm's AeroSphere SA-60 is a low altitude airship design for battlefield surveillance and to monitor war zones or patrol U.S. land borders, as well as coastal ports to help reduce threat of terrorist attack.

In June of 2003, pilot Hokan Colting and co-pilot Tim Buss flew an AeroSphere SA-60 -- a 62-foot diameter prototype -- to a 20,000 feet-plus altitude.

The company is developing ever-larger spherical airships, designs upwards of several hundred feet in diameter that are slated for flight testing in the near future. The fin-less spherical shaped craft concept is equipped with vectored thrusters providing the needed steering and altitude control.

TSI airships are extremely maneuverable and can ascend and descend vertically, easily maneuvered to accomplish a full 360 degree rotation on their axis. "Essentially, this design does for traditional airship designs what the helicopter did for fixed wing aircraft in terms of maneuverability," a company website explains.

-- Leonard David

July 8

Lake Vostok Offers Clues in ET Life Search

The most comprehensive measurements of Lake Vostok in Antarctica -- the world's largest subglacial lake -- have revealed surprising results.

The new data indicates that it is divided into two distinct basins that may have different water chemistry and other characteristics. The findings have implications for the diversity of any microbial life in Lake Vostok, and how best to explore for that biology.

Underneath more than two miles of ice, Lake Vostok is thought to be a terrestrial look-alike to conditions on Europa -- a moon of Jupiter. Europa is believed to hold a large liquid ocean far under its frozen surface. If microbial life can exist in Vostok, scientists have argued, it also might thrive on Europa.

At Lake Vostok, laser altimeter, ice-penetrating radar, and gravity measurements were collected by aircraft flying over the lake.

In a paper published June 19 in Geophysical Research Letters, a journal of the American Geophysical Union, scientists from the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University and the University of Tokyo detailed their Lake Vostok observations. The U.S.-based National Science Foundation (NSF) supported the research.

Exploration of the lake is an international effort, one that will require use of ultra-clean technologies to prevent contaminating the waters. That same approach would be necessary at Europa as well.

-- Leonard David

July 7

No Life in Star's 'Asteroid Alley'

There may be many Sun-like stars in our galaxy that harbor planets, astronomers say, and they are all candidates in the search for extraterrestrial life. But one such nearby star system is too loaded with life-threatening asteroids and comets to support biology, researchers say.

Tau Ceti, at about 12 light-years away, is the nearest star to resemble our Sun. It contains 10 times more leftovers of its formation, in the form of asteroids and comets, than does our solar system. Any planets that might orbit the star would be bombarded so frequently that life would likely never gain a toehold.

"We don't yet know whether there are any planets orbiting Tau Ceti, but if there are, it is likely that they will experience constant bombardment from asteroids of the kind that is believed to have wiped out the dinosaurs," said Jane Greaves of the Royal Astronomical Society. "It is likely that with so many large impacts life would not have the opportunity to evolve."

(Tau Ceti was probed for ET signals in 1960 by pioneering SETI researcher Frank Drake.)

Other stars are known to contain belts of asteroids and comets. The new view of the Tau Ceti system, based on submillimeter observations with the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope in Hawaii, is detailed in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. The report suggests the bio-friendly space around Earth may be more unusual than some scientists expect, something to consider in the search for life-bearing planets.

"We will have to look for stars which are even more like the Sun, in other words, ones which have only a small number of comets and asteroids," Greaves said. "It may be that hostile systems like Tau Ceti are just as common as suitable ones like the Sun."

One astronomer called the Tau Ceti system an "asteroid alley." Nobody knows why so much more material orbits Tau Ceti compared to the Sun.

"It could be that our Sun passed relatively close to another star at some point in its history and that the close encounter stripped most of the comets and asteroids from around the Sun," said Mark Wyatt, another member of the study team.

-- Robert Roy Britt

July 6

Cosmonaut Andrian Nikolayev Dies at 74

MOSCOW (AP) -- Cosmonaut Andrian Nikolayev, whose 1962 flight into space set an endurance record at the time, has died. He was 74.

Nikolayev suffered a heart attack Saturday in Cheboksary, the capital of his native Chuvash Autonomous Republic in central Russia, where he was judging the All-Russian rural sport games. He died there at a hospital, the Interfax news agency reported.

Nikolayev became Russia's third cosmonaut to travel into space when he and Pavel Popovich were launched in separate crafts in August 1962. The pair made the first simultaneous flights, and Nikolayev set a separate endurance record, circling the Earth 64 times in 96 hours.

He returned to space in 1970 for his second and final mission onboard the Soyuz 9 craft. Altogether, he spent more than 200 hours in space, according to Russian media reports.

Twice named a Hero of the Soviet Union, Nikolayev was a key member of the proud Soviet cosmonaut corps, which included Yuri Gagarin, the first man to fly into space in 1961.

Nikolayev was married to Valentina Tereshkova, who in 1963 became the first woman to travel to space. They later divorced.

Details about his funeral service were not immediately available.

-- Associated Press

July 2

Headed for a Hot Time: Mercury-bound Probe

NASA's MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry, and Ranging spacecraft is undergoing final preparation for a July 30 liftoff.

Called MESSENGER for short, the probe will be the first to study Mercury up-close since a trio of Mariner 10 flybys in 1974-1975.

Following departure atop a Boeing Delta 2 rocket late this month from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, MESENGER will fly past Earth once, Venus twice and Mercury three times - then go into orbit around Mercury for a year-long study of the Sun's closest planet in March 2011.

During the flybys, MESSENGER will map nearly all of Mercury in color, imaging most of the areas unseen by Mariner 10, and chart the composition of the planet's surface, atmosphere and magnetosphere. The flybys are to help plan MESSENGER's year-long orbital mission.

MESSENGER was built for NASA by the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland.

-- Leonard David

June 30

Mars Express: Water-Witching Experiment on Hold

The European Space Agency's Mars Express now orbiting the red planet has run into an awkward technical snag.

Deployment of the Advanced Radar for Subsurface and Ionosphere Sounding (MARSIS) is being delayed until later this year. The antenna -- consisting of two long hollow booms - was to spring out from the Mars Express last April in jack-in-the-box fashion.

But that action was deferred due to worries that the antenna might swing back with a greater range of motion than expected after opening, possibly hitting and damaging the already productive spacecraft.

Recent studies carried out by the antenna's manufacturer -- the U.S.-based Astro Aerospace of Carpinteria, California -- has found that the radar deployment might have more movement than previously thought. Initially, the company considered unfurling the radar booms as a smooth sailing proposition. However, engineers now think boom dynamics might take place, creating a kind of "backlash" before the hardware locks into position.

The unique MARSIS gear is designed to seek evidence of underground water, either frozen or liquid, hiding as deep as 3 miles (five kilometers) beneath the time-weathered surface of the Red Planet.

-- Leonard David

June 28

Mars Mystery Solved!

Of the many intriguing observations taken by the Mars rovers, one of the most interesting was not of the surrounding geology. Rather, it was an image of the martian atmosphere. Caught in action was something streaking through the sky.

At first, Mars scientists operating the rovers thought the fast moving, caught-on-camera curiosity was a spacecraft -- perhaps an aging Viking Orbiter still circling the red planet.

"The initial thought was that little streak in the sky was an old relic spacecraft. There's a lot of junk in orbit around Mars," said Steve Squyres of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, and principal investigator for the Athena science payload toted on each of the Mars rovers.

"The orientation of the streak in the sky matches the radiant for that shower to within a fraction of a degree. So we've seen a martian meteor," Squyres said.

-- Leonard David

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