Will the Dream of a Flying Car Finally Become a Reality?

PAL-V in its first flight. Image courtesy PAL-V.


We’ve all dreamed of having a flying car, but two companies are working to make this dream a reality. The latest in flying car designs is the Personal Air and Land Vehicle (PAL-V) One, which is advertised as going from high performance sports car to flying car in just minutes. Based in the Netherlands, the PAL-V company says this is “the ultimate vehicle to go wherever and whenever you want to, easily overcoming all sorts of barriers. Now you can leave home and fly-drive to almost any destination! Avoid traffic jams and cross lakes, fjords, rivers or mountain ranges like an eagle.”

Sign me up!

See a video of the PAL-V in flight, below.

While the PAL-V is designed more like a helicopter, another flying car prototype we reported on, the Terrafugia Transition, operates more like a airplane. Terrafugia recently completed its first test flight, and sells for about $250,000. The PAL-V One does not yet have listed price, but likely would be in a similar price range. Both companies hope to bring their products to market soon, with Terrafugia targeting a late 2012 release date, and PAL-V aiming for 2014.

PAL-V uses gyroplane technology for flying, with rotors that fold up when you want to drive the vehicle on land. It can fly to an altitude of 4,000 feet (considerably lower than the 30,000 to 50,000 feet where commercial jets fly), and owners would need to have a Sport Pilot’s certificate in order to fly the PAL-V One.

For more info, see the PAL-V website.

Is Earth Running Out Of Crust?

Panorama of a volcanic crater on Kilauea. (USGS)


Earth just doesn’t make crust like it used to… at least, not according to new research by a team of scientists in the UK.

Researchers with the Universities of Bristol, St Andrews and Portsmouth have studied elements trapped within zircon samples gathered from all over the planet to peer billions of years back in time at how Earth’s crust was being produced.

Zircon, a mineral found in granite, can be dated with precision and is thus an accurate measure for geologic timescales.

What they found was that 65% of our planet’s current crust had already existed 3 billion years ago. Since rocks older than 2.5 billion years are rare on Earth today, this means that some process began to take place that either reworked — or destroyed — a large portion of the older crust, and changed how new crust was formed.

During the first 1.5 billion years of Earth’s history, the team reports, the rate of crust formation was high — approximately 3 cubic kilometers was added to the continents each year. After that the rate dropped substantially, falling to about 0.8 cubic kilometers per year for the next 3 billion years — right up to the present day.

The cause is yet unknown, but it may be the result of the onset of plate tectonics driven by subduction — the process by which sections of Earth’s crust (“plates”) slide beneath other sections, sinking into the underlying mantle to be liquefied into magma by pressure and heat. New crust is created when the magma rises again where the plates separate… Earth’s current “conveyor belt” of crust formation.

Whatever process was in place prior to 3 billion years ago, it was much more efficient at creating crust.

“Such a sharp decrease in the crustal growth rate about 3 billion years ago indicates a dramatic change in the way the continental crust was generated and preserved,” said Dr. Bruno Dhuime of the University of Bristol’s School of Earth Sciences. “This change may in turn be linked to the onset of subduction-driven plate tectonics and discrete subduction zones as observed at the present day.  The next challenge is to determine which tectonic regime shaped the Earth’s crust in the planet’s first 1.5 billion years before this change.”

The team’s paper “A Change in the Geodynamics of Continental Growth 3 Billion Years Ago” (Bruno Dhuime, Chris J. Hawkesworth,  Peter A. Cawood, Craig D. Storey) was published March 16 in Science.

Read more on the University of Bristol’s press release here.

Watch Live Webcast of Venus-Pleiades Conjunction April 4, 2012

Venus on April 3, 2012, when it last passed over the Seven Sisters cluster. Credit: Bob King

There’s a nice meetup in the heavens tonight: bright Venus is snuggling up to one of the most famous star clusters, the Pleiades. The Slooh Space Camera is broadcasting a live, real-time feed of the most famous star cluster in the heavens, the Pleiades, meeting up with our nearest and brightest planetary neighbor, Venus. Slooh’s coverage will begin on Wednesday, April 4th starting at 1:30 PM PDT / 4:30 PM EDT / 20:30 UT. (This was originally scheduled for April 3rd, but was rescheduled due to high humidity at Canary Islands observatory off the coast of Africa.) The broadcast can be watched here, or accessed at Slooh’s homepage or by visiting Slooh’s G+ page, where you will be able to see the panel interact live via G+ Hangouts On Air.

If skies are clear, you can see the conjunction for yourself by looking toward the west in the constellation Taurus, after sunset, using binoculars. If you can get images of the event, we’ll post views of them. Share them on Universe Today’s Flickr page.

Continue reading “Watch Live Webcast of Venus-Pleiades Conjunction April 4, 2012”

Kepler Mission Extended to 2016

Artist concept of Kepler in space. Credit: NASA/JPL


With NASA’s tight budget, there were concerns that some of the agency’s most successful astrophysics missions might not be able to continue. Anxieties were rampant about one mission in particular, the very fruitful exoplanet-hunting Kepler mission, as several years of observations are required in order for Kepler to confirm a repeated orbit as a planet transits its star. But today, after a long awaited Senior Review of nine astrophysics missions, surprisingly all have received funding to continue at least through 2014, with several mission extensions, including Kepler.

“Ad Astra… Kepler mission extended through FY16! We are grateful & ecstatic!” the @NASAKepler Twitter account posted today.

Additionally, missions such as Hubble, Fermi and Swift will receive continued funding. The only mission that took a hit was the Spitzer infrared telescope, which – as of now — will be closed out in 2015, which is sooner than requested.

The Senior Review of missions takes place every two years, with the goal assisting NASA to optimize the scientific productivity of its operating missions during their extended phase. In the Review, missions are ranked as which are most successful; previous Senior Reviews led to the removal of funding for the weakest 10-20% of extended missions, some of which had partial instrument failures or significantly reduced capabilities.

But this year’s review found all the astrophysics mission to be successful.

“These nine missions comprise an extremely strong ensemble to enter the Senior Review process and we find that all are making very significant scientific contributions,” the Review committee wrote in their report.

Here’s a rundown of the missions and how their funding was affected by the Senior Review:

• The Hubble Space Telescope will continue at the currently funded levels.

• Chandra will also continue at current levels, but its Guest Observer budget will actually be increased to account for decreases in Fiscal Year 2011.

• Fermi operations are extended through FY16, with a 10 percent per year reduction starting in FY14.

• Swift and Kepler mission operations are extended through FY16, including funding for data analysis.

• Planck will support one year extended operations of the Low Frequency Instrument (LFI).

• Spitzer’s operations are extended through FY14 with closeout in FY15.

• U.S. science support of Suzaku is extended to March 2015.

• Funding for U.S. support of XMM-Newton is extended through March 2015.

NASA says that all FY15-FY16 decisions are for planning purposes and they will be revisited in the 2014 Senior Review.

Read more in the full report (pdf).

Texas School Kids Get To Talk To Space

Some lucky sixth-, seventh- and eigth-graders at the O. Henry Middle School in Austin, Texas got the chance to chat with Expedition 30 astronauts Dan Burbank, Don Pettit and Andre Kuipers aboard the International Space Station today, getting answers to their questions about life in orbit. The video was shared by NASA TV shortly after. Enjoy!

Credit: NASA

Finding Out What Dark Matter Is – And Isn’t

This dwarf spheroidal galaxy is a satellite of our Milky Way and is one of 10 used in Fermi's dark matter search. (Credit: ESO/Digital Sky Survey 2)

Astronomers using NASA’s Fermi Gamma-Ray Space Telescope have been looking for evidence of suspected types of dark matter particles within faint dwarf galaxies near the Milky Way — relatively “boring” galaxies that have little activity but are known to contain large amounts of dark matter. The results?

These aren’t the particles we’re looking for.

80% of the material in the physical Universe is thought to be made of dark matter — matter that has mass and gravity but does not emit electromagnetic energy (and is thus invisible). Its gravitational effects can be seen, particularly in clouds surrounding galaxies where it is suspected to reside in large amounts. Dark matter can affect the motions of stars, galaxies and even entire clusters of galaxies… but when it all comes down to it, scientists still don’t really know exactly what dark matter is.

Possible candidates for dark matter are subatomic particles called WIMPs (Weakly Interacting Massive Particles). WIMPs don’t absorb or emit light and don’t interact with other particles, but whenever they interact with each other they annihilate and emit gamma rays.

If dark matter is composed of WIMPs, and the dwarf galaxies orbiting the Milky Way do contain large amounts of dark matter, then any gamma rays the WIMPs might emit could be detected by NASA’s Fermi Gamma-Ray Space Telescope.

After all, that’s what Fermi does.

Ten such galaxies — called dwarf spheroids — were observed by Fermi’s Large-Area Telescope (LAT) over a two-year period. The international team saw no gamma rays within the range expected from annihilating WIMPs were discovered, thus narrowing down the possibilities of what dark matter is.

“In effect, the Fermi LAT analysis compresses the theoretical box where these particles can hide,” said Jennifer Siegal-Gaskins, a physicist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena and a member of the Fermi LAT Collaboration.


So rather than a “failed experiment”, such non-detection means that for the first time researchers can be scientifically sure that WIMP candidates within a specific range of masses and interaction rates cannot be dark matter.

(Sometimes science is about knowing what not to look for.)

A paper detailing the team’s results appeared in the Dec. 9, 2011, issue of Physical Review Letters. Read more on the Fermi mission page here.

Take a Ride on a Rocket Sled To Test Supersonic Decelerators

Low Density Supersonic Decelerator prototype. Credit: NASA

Landing large payloads on Mars — large enough to bring humans to the Red Planet’s surface — is still beyond our capability. “There’s too much atmosphere on Mars to land heavy vehicles like we do on the moon, using propulsive technology completely,” said Rob Manning, Chief Engineer for the Mars Exploration Directorate, in an article we wrote a few years ago about the problems of landing on Mars “and there’s too little atmosphere to land like we do on Earth. Mars atmosphere provides an ugly, grey zone.”

The best hope on the horizon for making the human missions to Mars possible are supersonic decelerators that are now being developed. This new technology will hopefully be able to slow larger, heavier landers from the supersonic speeds of atmospheric entry to subsonic ground-approach speeds. NASA’s Low Density Supersonic Decelerator (LDSD) program is testing out some of these new devices and recently performed a trial run on a rocket sled test to replicate the forces a supersonic spacecraft would experience prior to landing. The sled tests will see how inflatable and parachute decelerators work to slow spacecraft prior to landing and allow NASA to increase landed payload masses, as well as improve landing accuracy and increase the altitude of safe landing-sites.


Three devices are being developed: two different sizes of supersonic inflatable aerodynamic decelerators and super-huge parachutes. The supersonic inflatable decelerators are very large, durable, balloon-like pressure vessels that inflate around the entry vehicle and slow it from Mach 3.5 or greater to Mach 2. These decelerators are being developed in 6-meter-diameter and 9-meter-diameters.

The large parachute is 30 meters in diameter, and it will further slow the entry vehicle from Mach 2 to subsonic speeds. All three devices will be the largest of their kind ever flown at speeds several times greater than the speed of sound.

Together, these new drag devices can increase payload delivery to the surface of Mars from our current capability of 1.5 metric tons to 2 to 3 metric tons, depending on which inflatable decelerator is used in combination with the parachute. They will increase available landing altitudes by 2-3 kilometers, increasing the accessible surface area we can explore. They also will improve landing accuracy from a margin of 10 kilometers to just 3 kilometers. All these factors will increase the capabilities and robustness of robotic and human explorers on Mars.

NASA is now testing these devices on rocket sleds and later will conduct tests high in Earth’s stratosphere, simulating entry into Mars’ thin atmosphere. The first supersonic flight tests are set for 2013 and 2014.

Find out more about the LDSD program here.

Carnival of Space #243

Carnival of Space. Image by Jason Major.


This week’s Carnival of Space is hosted by Gadi Eidelheit at his Venus Transit blog. Gadi has lots of information about the upcoming rare event of Venus transiting the Sun in June.

Click here to read Carnival of Space #243

And if you’re interested in looking back, here’s an archive to all the past Carnivals of Space. If you’ve got a space-related blog, you should really join the carnival. Just email an entry to [email protected], and the next host will link to it. It will help get awareness out there about your writing, help you meet others in the space community – and community is what blogging is all about. And if you really want to help out, sign up to be a host. Send an email to the above address.

Ice Sculptures Fill The Deepest Parts of Mars

Credit: NASA/JPL/Arizona State University


One of the “weirdest and least understood” areas of Mars, the enormous Hellas Impact Basin contains strange flowing landforms that bespeak of some specialized and large-scale geologic process having taken place. The HiRISE camera aboard NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter recently captured the image above, showing what’s being called “lava lamp terrain” — stretched and contorted surface that looks like overworked modeling clay or pulled taffy… or, with a bit of imagination, the melted, mesmerizing contents of a party light from another era.

At 1,400 miles (2,300 km) across, Mars’ Hellas Basin is one of the largest impact craters in the entire Solar System. Its vast interior sinks to a depth of about 23,000 feet (7152 meters) below Mars’ average surface elevation (Martian “sea level”, if you will) and thus its floor is often shrouded by haze and dust, making visual imaging difficult.

The “lava lamp” terrain is just one of many different types of landforms that are found in the basin, although many of these banded features are found in the northwest area — which is also the deepest part of the basin. If there had been water in the region at some point in the planet’s history, it would have concentrated there.

Although the texture at first appears as if it could be volcanic in origin, it’s thought that flowing water or ice may actually be the source.

Researchers are currently working to determine how the Hellas Basin became so smoothly sculpted. Nicolas Thomas, Professor of Experimental Physics at the University of Bern, Switzerland, told Universe Today:

“There are a lot of very interesting images from this area and we are trying to get more data (including stereo) to understand better what’s going on and to try to establish what process is responsible for the numerous bizarre features we see. We are hoping to make some more progress in the next few months.”

Example of banded terrain. Compare the relatively fresh appearance of the bands with the older terrain seen to the left of this sub-image. (NASA/JPL/University of Arizona/N. Thomas et al.)

This hypothesis is also in line with the possibility of Hellas Basin having once been a giant lake.

“Together with the observations of isolated areas and the lack of obvious caldera(s), it is difficult to envisage a volcanic origin for these features and we currently tend towards a mechanism involving ice,” Thomas stated in an abstract of a presentation given at the Europlanet Conference in 2010.

Read the full abstract here, and see this and more high-resolution images from Mars on the HiRISE website.

Curiosity Halfway to Red Planet Touchdown

Curiosity Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) Spacecraft Cruising to Mars. Guided by the stars, Curiosity has reached the halfway point of its interplanetary cruise phase from the Earth to Mars in between launch on Nov. 26, 2011 and final approach in August 2012. MSL will use the stars to navigate. The spacecraft includes a disc-shaped solar powered cruise stage (on the left) attached to the aeroshell (right). Curiosity and the descent stage are tucked inside the aeroshell. Along the way to Mars, the cruise stage will perform six trajectory correction maneuvers (TCM’s) to adjust the spacecraft's path toward its final, precise landing site on Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech


As of today, NASA’s car sized Curiosity rover has reached the halfway point in her 352 million mile (567 million km) journey to Mars – No fooling on April 1, 2012.

It’s T Minus 126 days until Curiosity smashes into the Martian atmosphere to brave the hellish “6 Minutes of Terror” – and, if all goes well, touch down inside Gale Crater at the foothills of a Martian mountain taller than the tallest in the continental United States – namely Mount Rainier.

Curiosity will search for the ingredients of life in the form of organic molecules – the carbon based molecules which are the building blocks of life as we know it. The one-ton behemoth is packed to the gills with 10 state of the art science instruments including a 7 foot long robotic arm, scoop, drill and laser rock zapper.

The Curiosity Mars Science laboratory (MSL) rover was launched from sunny Florida on Nov. 26, 2011 atop a powerful Atlas V rocket for an 8.5 month interplanetary cruise from the Earth to Mars and is on course to land on the Red Planet early in the morning of Aug. 6, 2012 EDT and Universal Time (or Aug. 5 PDT).

Curiosity’s Position in Space on April 1, 2012 - Halfway to Mars
This roadmap shows Curiosity's flight path through the Solar System - From Earth to Mars during the 8.5 month interplanetary cruise. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

On March 26, engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., successfully ignited the spacecrafts thrusters for the second of six planned trajectory correction maneuvers (TCM’s) to adjust the robot’s flight path during the long journey to achieve a pinpoint landing beside the Martian mountain.

“It is satisfying to get the second maneuver under our belts and know we are headed in the right direction,” said JPL’s Erisa Hines, systems lead for the maneuver. “The cruise system continues to perform very well.”

This maneuver was one-seventh as much as the flight’s first course adjustment, on Jan. 11. The cruise stage is equipped with eight thrusters grouped into two sets of four that fire as the entire spacecraft spins at two rotations per minute. The thruster firings change the velocity of the spacecraft in two ways – along the direction of the axis of rotation and also perpendicular to the axis. Altogether there were more than 60 pulsing maneuvers spaced about 10 seconds apart.

“The purpose is to put us on a trajectory to the point in the Mars atmosphere where we need to be for a safe and accurate landing,” said Mau Wong, maneuver analyst at JPL.

Atlas V rocket and Curiosity Mars rover poised at Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral, Florida prior to Nov. 26, 2011 liftoff. Credit: Ken Kremer

Marking another crucial milestone, the flight team has also powered up and checked the status of all 10 MSL science instruments – and all are nominal.

“The types of testing varied by instrument, and the series as whole takes us past the important milestone of confirming that all the instruments survived launch,” said Betina Pavri of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., science payload test engineer for the mission. “These checkouts provide a valuable calibration and characterization opportunity for the instruments, including camera dark images and a measurement of zero pressure in the vacuum of space for the rover weather station’s pressure sensor.”

Ever since it was the first of MSL’s science instruments to be switched on three months ago, the Radiation Assessment Detector (RAD) has been collecting valuable measurements about the potentially lethal radiation environment in space and acting as a stunt double for determining the potential health effects on future human travelers to Mars.

RAD has been collecting data on the recent wave of extremely powerful solar flares erupting from the sun.

Curiosity has another 244 million kilometers to go over the next 4 months.

All hopes ride on Curiosity as America’s third and last generation of Mars rovers.

Devastating and nonsensical funding cuts to NASA’s Planetary Science budget have forced NASA to cancel participation in the 2018 ExoMars lander mission that had been joint planned with ESA, the European Space Agency. ESA now plans to forge ahead with Russian participation.

Stay tuned

Simulated view to Mars over the shoulder of Curiosity on 1 April 2012 - from current location halfway to the Red Planet. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Read Ken’s recent Curiosity feature here:
A Penny for your Curiosity on Mars