Alaskan Martian Update, Eclipse Photos, and More

It’s a bit of a slow news day today. I’m not sure why… some kind of election, or something. Anyway, I wanted to give you an update on Ray Collins, who shut himself in a greenhouse in Alaska to figure out how much space would be required to feed an astronaut. He ate the last of his potatoes, and exited Mars Base Zero on Tuesday. You can read his final update, and if you’re interested in getting involved, or sharing ideas, they’ve got some ambitious plans and I’m sure they’d love to hear from you.

Second, thanks to everyone who sent in your stories and pictures of last week’s lunar eclipse. It’s great to see how an event like this can really bring people together, and help encourage an appreciation for the beautiful night skies. So, check them out, and share your experience if you hadn’t already.

Finally, a reminder to head out in the next couple of morning and enjoy the Venus/Jupiter planetary conjunction. The two planets are already close together in the sky, and getting closer. It’s really beautiful.


Fraser Cain
Universe Today

Here’s How You Can Help

I’ve got to say I definitely feel appreciated maintaining this website and newsletter. I get lots of supportive email every day – my boosted ego thanks you (keep it coming, though). Since it’s largely a one-man show, people have been wondering how they can help out. Well… I’m glad you asked, here are some ways you can help me maintain and improve Universe Today.

Tell your friends about the site. Point them at a specific story, or forward them a copy of the newsletter and encourage them to subscribe.

Suggestions and feedback. More eyes will make the site better. If I’ve made a mistake, or you’ve got an idea on how I can improve things, please let me know.

Join the forum. Help answer questions and discuss events with other space enthusiasts. Many hands make light work.

Donate. Click this link to donate money directly to me with Paypal. This will help cover my server hosting costs and hire freelance writers to make the site better.

Support my sponsors. As Christmas approaches, consider giving space-related gifts to the people you love. If you buy presents from companies like Countdown Creations, it supports me too. Here’s some information if you’re thinking of advertising.

Thanks again!

Fraser Cain
Universe Today

P.S. To combat SPAM, I’ve shut down all my email addresses except for [email protected][email protected] no longer works.

You Have My Permission

I get a lot of emails from people wondering if they can quote Universe Today for their own newsletter, school project, etc. My answer is always “yes”. If you think the material in Universe Today is helpful, you’ve all got my permission to use it for any purpose whatsoever. Republish it into your own website, copy-paste material for your Star Trek fanzine, post articles in your forum, or use it for a book you’re writing. Be my guest. All I ask is that you give Universe Today credit, and a link back to if you can.

This permission is only for stuff in Universe Today, not any outside links. That belongs to them, not me. Also, most of the photos I use are license free (the NASA stuff, anyway), but you should always track back the original owner and make sure you’re allowed to use them.

If you’ve got a website, the easiest way to do this is with the syndication service. Put one line of HTML onto any webpage, and the latest edition of Universe Today will automatically pop in there. Here’s a link to the syndication instructions. Universe Today is also maintained in RSS format, so you can gather articles that way as well. Here’s a link to the RSS edition.

Hope that clears it up.

Fraser Cain
Universe Today

Five Years of Universe Today

In case you weren’t counting, today marks the fifth anniversary of Universe Today. That’s right, I started this space web rag on March 22, 1999 as a hobby; an excuse for me to learn more about web publishing and online marketing. Little did I realize I’d still be working on it five years later. 🙂 I never dreamed I’d have more than a few hundred subscribers, but there are now 21,000 of you signed up to get the email edition.

Since I began Universe Today, I’ve moved servers seven times, had two children, lost two hard drives, published 805 newsletters, worked at three different jobs, and served up about 200 million “hits”. There have been a few dry spells, too, when I didn’t have the time or enthusiasm to work on the website – the last year’s been a blast though. If you want to take a look back at the history of the website, here’s a handy link through the Wayback Machine. I know, I know, it started out pretty ugly.

So, I just wanted to take a moment and thank everyone for your enthusiastic support, engaging conversation in the forum, and gentle feedback at my tpyos. I’d also like to thank my sponsors (especially Countdown Creations, who’s been a big contributor right from the beginning).

Here’s to many, many more years.

Fraser Cain
Universe Today

Help Support Universe Today

I’ve had several generous offers from readers wondering how they could donate money to help me maintain Universe Today; which, as you know is pretty much a labour of love. I’ve felt a little uncomfortable about the idea, but a few of you have been very persistent. 🙂

So, I’ve gone ahead and set up with Paypal so you can donate money to Universe Today. If you feel that this website and newsletter are of value to you, and you want to contribute, just click this link which will take you to a form where you can donate money with your credit card. Universe Today has always, and will always be free. This is totally voluntary, and I leave it up to you to contribute only if it’s something you want to do. Knowing me, I’ll probably just use additional funds to hire some additional writers.

Thanks for all your support and kindness, I really appreciate it.

Fraser Cain
Universe Today

P.S. People have also been wanting updated pictures of Chloe and Logan. Here’s Chloe with her favorite alien brainsucker hat.

Prints Available For Hubble Deep Field

After yesterday’s wallpaper image of the new Hubble Deep Field Survey containing more than 10,000 galaxies, I had a couple of requests from people for me to a make a printed version available. Done. Click this link to go to the photo gallery, and then click on “Hubble Space Telescope”. The first image is of the survey, and you can order a printed copy up to 20″ x 30″.


Fraser Cain
Universe Today

Space Settlement Contest Ends Soon

I mentioned this back in June, but it’s time for another reminder, since the deadline is closing fast. If you’ve got a budding space colony designer in your house, you might want to put them to work. NASA Ames annual Space Settlement Contest, open to anyone 11-18 years old around the world, is wrapping up soon. Everyone who participates gets a certificate, and the winner’s design will be showcased on the NASA Ames website. Submissions must be received by March 31, 2004. Click here to see all the information.

Good luck!

Fraser Cain
Universe Today

Top Space Stories for 2003

2003 was quite a year for space and astronomy, with the loss of Columbia and Chinese making their first successful human space launch. It was definitely a year of highs and lows. Join Universe Today as we look at the top space stories of the year. In no particular order…

Columbia Disaster
Space exploration is an extremely dangerous business. This lesson was hammered home in 2003 when the space shuttle Columbia broke up above Texas as it was on approach to land in Florida. The lives of seven astronauts were lost in a few firey moments on February 1, 2003. Months of investigation revealed that a chunk of foam fell off the external fuel tank and smashed a hole in the shuttle’s carbon-fibre wing panels. When Columbia was returning to Earth at the end of its mission, the open hole in the wing allowed hot gasses to penetrate the shuttle’s heat protection. The Columbia Accident Investigation board placed the blame on the foam, but said that NASA’s lack of safety allowed the accident to happen in the first place. While NASA is implementing the safety recommendations to get the shuttles flying again, the US administration is said to be planning a bold new program in space.

Columbia Accident Investigation website

Chinese Space Launch
Previously unknown, astronaut Yang Liwei became an instant celebrity on October 15, when he became the first human the Chinese space program sent into space. Liwei was launched from the Jiuquan desert launch site and orbited the Earth only 14 times in 21 hours. Only the United States and Russia have ever been capable of sending humans into space before this year. Riding high on their accomplishments, the normally tight-lipped Chinese revealed more details of their space program this year: additional human launches, a space station, probes to the Moon, and eventually humans on the Moon. NASA was one of the first to congratulate the Chinese on their accomplishment, but some space industry experts believe that this will spur the agency on to a new spirit of competition.

SpaceShipOne Goes Supersonic
The space community was expecting US President George Bush to make some announcement about the future of US space exploration on December 17, the 100th anniversary of the first Wright Brothers flight. He didn’t, but on that day Scaled Composites – an aircraft manufacturer in California – made news with the first rocket test flight of SpaceShipOne; their suborbital rocket plane. The unique-looking aircraft was carried to an altitude of 14,600 metres by the White Knight carrier plane and then released. It fired its hybrid rocket engine and blasted up to an altitude of 20,700 metres; breaking the sound barrier as it went. SpaceShipOne is considered the top contender to win the $10 million X-Prize which will be awarded to the first privately-built suborbital spacecraft which can fly to 100 km.

Scaled Composites website

Disappearance of Beagle 2
In a perfect world, this would be a tribute to the successful landing of Beagle 2; Britain’s $50 million, 70-kg Mars lander which traveled to the Red Planet on board the European Space Agency’s Mars Express spacecraft. Unfortunately, it looks like Mars has swallowed yet another spacecraft, and at the time of this writing the lander has failed to communicate home; either through Mars Odyssey orbiting above, or Earth-based radio observatories. Beagle 2 was supposed to land in the relatively safe Isidis Planitia region of Mars and then search for evidence of microbial life for 180-days with a suite of sensitive instruments. The best opportunity to communicate with Beagle 2 comes in 2004, though, when Mars Express reaches its final orbit and will attempt to make contact. Maybe the recovery of Beagle 2 will make one of the top stories in 2004.

Beagle 2 website

Mars’ Closest Approach to the Earth
Mars took centre stage this summer when it made its closest approach to the Earth in over 60,000 years. Because of their orbits, the Earth and Mars get close every two years, but on August 27 they were only 55,758,000 kilometres apart. The mainstream media picked up the story, and for a while it was Mars mania. Astronomy clubs and planetariums that held special Mars observing nights for the public were totally overwhelmed by the number of people who showed up to have a peek through a telescope. And they weren’t disappointed. Even with a relatively small 6″ telescope and good observing conditions, it was possible to see details on Mars like its polar caps, dust storms, and darker patches. If you missed it this year, don’t worry, Mars will be even closer in 2287.

Biggest Solar Flare Ever Observed
Our Sun showed a nasty side this year, with a series of powerful flares and coronal mass ejections. On November 4, 2003, the Sun surprised even the most experienced solar astronomers with the most powerful flare anyone had ever seen. It was so powerful that it momentarily blinded cameras designed to measure flares, so it actually took a few days for astronomers to calculate just how bright it was. In the end, it was categorized as an X28 flare. But this was just one of a series of powerful flares, many of which were aimed directly at our Earth, sending wave after wave of material our direction. Incredibly, there were very few problems on the Earth – contact was lost with a Japanese satellite, and some communications were disrupted – but we got through it largely unharmed. The auroras, however, were awesome.

SOHO website

Farewell Galileo
On September 20, 2003, NASA’s Galileo spacecraft finally ended its 14-year journey to the Jovian system with its triumphant crash into the giant gas planet. Galileo was plagued with problems right from the start, including a series of launch delays, and a failure of its main antenna. But NASA engineers were able to overcome these obstacles, and use the spacecraft to make some incredible discoveries about the Jupiter and its moons. Photos taken by the Galileo gave scientists proof that three of the moons might have liquid water under their icy surfaces. Passing through Jupiter’s massive radiation took its toll on the spacecraft, and various instruments started to fail, including its main camera, which went offline in 2002. With the spacecraft failing, controllers decided it would be best to crash Galileo into Jupiter, to protect potential life on the Jovian moons from contamination.

Galileo website

Age of the Universe
This is the year we learned how old we are – well… how old the Universe is. Thanks to a comprehensive survey of the sky performed by NASA’s Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP), astronomers were able to calculate that the Universe is 13.7 billion years old, give or take 200 million years. WMAP, launched in June 2001, measured the sky’s cosmic background radiation, which was unleashed 380,000 years after the Big Bang – when the expanding Universe had cooled down enough for the first atoms to form. This wasn’t the first survey of the cosmic background radiation, but the WMAP is so sensitive, it was able to detect extremely slight temperature changes in the radiation.

Wilkinson Microwave Anistropy Probe website

Spitzer Space Telescope
The last of great observatories, the Spitzer Space Telescope (previously named SIRTF) was finally launched into space on August 25, 2003. Almost every object in the Universe radiates heat in the infrared spectrum, which Spitzer is designed to detect. So objects which might be hidden to visible light telescopes, like Hubble, can be seen in tremendous detail with Spitzer. The observatory completed its 60-day on-orbit checkout period and calibration, and just before the end of the year the operators released four incredible photographs that demonstrated the potential of this instrument. Spitzer will help astronomers look at the dusty hearts of galaxies, young planetary discs, and cool objects like comets, and brown dwarfs. Spitzer may even help astronomers understand the nature of dark matter.

Spitzer Space Telescope website

Mars Express Arrives
The search for the missing Beagle 2 lander overshadowed the success of the European Space Agency’s Mars Express spacecraft, which went into a perfect orbit on December 25, and then performed additional maneuvers flawlessly. This is the Europe’s first mission to the Red Planet, and it’s got an important job to do. In addition to helping out the search for Beagle 2, Mars Express will begin mapping the surface of Mars with a powerful radar system which should reveal underground deposits of water and ice.

Mars Express website

Robert Zubrin Responds to Your Questions

A few weeks ago I reviewed Dr. Robert Zubrin’s newest book, Mars on Earth. I’ve had feedback from Universe Today readers in the past that they they’d like to ask Zubrin a few questions about his goal of sending humans to Mars, so I figured this would be a good chance to get those questions answered. I gave people on the forum a few days to propose their questions and then I selected four questions that I felt were original, and didn’t really cover territory that we’ve heard Zubrin talk about in past (such as in The Case for Mars and Entering Space).

Thanks to everyone who participated, and thanks to Dr. Zubrin for taking the time to respond. If you had fun with this, let me know if there’s anyone else you’d like to throw questions at, and maybe I can track them down.

If you’re interested in the goal of sending humans to Mars, I highly recommend you take a look at the Mars Society, which Robert Zubrin is the President. Click here to visit their website.

1. Dave Mitsky: What do you feel is the most dangerous aspect of the Mars Direct plan?

Zubrin: The ascent from Mars in the Earth Return Vehicle (ERV). The liftoff from Mars followed by trans-Earth injection only requires about half the delta-V as the outbound trip, but there will be much fewer people there to monitor it. So we need really good automated health maintenance and monitoring equipment on the ERV, allowing the launch to be effectively controlled from Earth.

2. Eli: What do you think should be done to make sure a manned Mars mission will not be a “take a photo and not come back for 3 decades” mission ala Apollo?

Zubrin: The problem with Apollo was twofold; that it was the creature of the political class, and the basis upon which it was sold to much of the political class. When it achieved its stated Cold War objective, the elites were then free to dismantle it, as there was no organic space movement with a deeper goal around to sustain it.

We need to make sure that the Mars program is created with the stated goal of opening a new world for humanity, and we need to organize a grassroots movement that supports it and sustains it on that basis.

Black abolitionist leader Frederick Douglas once said “Emancipation would lose half its value were it won by the efforts of white men alone.” He was right. We need to make sure that the Mars program is OUR program, and not THEIR program.

3. Josh: What feedback have the people in power – the government or NASA – given to your ideas?

Zubrin: Many people at the NASA field centers have become supporters of Mars Direct. Some of the headquarters crowd still opposes it as they oppose any destination driven orientation that would force NASA to abandon its constituency-driven method of spending and provide a metric against which results could be measured.

4. exAstro: If it comes down to a cost/benefit analysis we’ll probably never go to Mars- at least by current thinking. So- how do we move beyond that mindset? What would prompt the ultimate decision makers (purse holders) to decide that it’s in “our” best interest to go to Mars? I assume that the technology is not at issue.

Zubrin: I dispute the premise of the question. A cost-benefit analysis demands that we abandon the wasteful Shuttle-era approach of constituency driven spending and return to the highly productive destination driven Apollo era approach.

NASA spending is now 90% of the average Apollo era (1961-1973) level. We spent as much on NASA, in real inflation-adjusted dollars, between 1990 and 2003 as we did between 1961 and 1973. But compare the results. Between 1961-1973 we went from near zero space capability to fly Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, Skylab, Ranger, Mariner, Surveyor, Pioneer Jupiter; we developed hydrogen/oxygen rocket engines, multi-staged heavy lift launch vehicles, in space life support systems, spacesuits, soft landing techniques, lunar rovers, RTGs, space nuclear reactors, nuclear rocket engines, reentry techniques, interplanetary navigation and communication technologies; we built the Deep Space Network, Johnson Space Center, JPL (in the sense it exists today), the Cape Canaveral launch complex, and we inspired a generation of youth to enter science and engineering.

In contrast, between 1990 and 2003 we flew about three-score STS missions, launched and repaired Hubble, launched half a dozen lunar or planetary probes (compared with over 40 for 61-73), and launched a space station which is still less capable than Skylab. So the mission productivity was much less, but the technology return was even worse; as a result of the lack of any forcing function, NASA, despite its claim to be focussing on technology development, developed NO significant new space technologies during the 1990-2003 period, built no new infrastructure, and failed to inspire youth in any way remotely comparable to that it achieved in the sixties.

So if the question is; how do we assure the taxpayers of a real return on their space dollar, there is only one answer; Give NASA a job that is worthy of a $16 billion/year space agency. Assign it the task of sending humans to Mars within a decade.

I Want My NASA TV!

If you’re a Canadian? read this! If you’re not a Canadian, well, still read it… you can help us out. 🙂

I was visiting my Father about 5 years ago, and we were sitting in the kitchen when he said, “hey, it’s time to watch the floaters.” Wha? He turned on the kitchen television, and there was a live broadcast of some astronauts spacewalking outside the shuttle. I couldn’t believe my eyes.

Apparently, my clever Dad had jury-rigged an old satellite dish so that it would receive a television feed from NASA. NASA has a television channel, and it’s all about their space exploration. It could be the greatest thing ever. Okay, it gets a little boring between space launches, but overall, it’s a tremendous channel to have access to.

My Father, on remote Hornby Island, gets NASA television loud and clear. But there’s no way I can get it here in Vancouver. I called my cable company… nope. Then I got a digital satellite dish… nope, sorry.

The only place I can watch NASA TV is on my computer. Ever watched television on your computer? It’s small, blurry, choppy and cuts off all the time. Anyway, I stare enough at computer monitors.

I want my NASA TV.

Well much to my surprise, the Canadian Canadian Radio and Television Commission was actually in discussions to get the cable companies to offer it, but it all fell apart. We get Jerry Springer, but we can’t watch NASA TV. Fortunately, we do get the Daily Show with Jon Stewart, which is about the only thing that gets me to turn my television on these days.

Now there’s hope. The Friends of NASA TV in Canada. It’s a petition to try to convince the CRTC and cable companies to get us the space news we so richly deserve.

If you’re a Canadian, visit their website and sign the petition. Not only that, I want you find as many other Canadians who will do what you say, and get them to sign this. Do it!

If you’re not a Canadian, but you know a Canadian, I want you to send them an email begging them to sign this petition. You got it? Good.

I want my NASA TV.

Fraser Cain, Publisher
Universe Today