Cosmic Corkscrew

Making an extra effort to image a faint, gigantic corkscrew traced by fast protons and electrons shot out from a mysterious microquasar paid off for a pair of astrophysicists who gained new insights into the beast’s inner workings and also resolved a longstanding dispute over the object’s distance.

The astrophysicists used the National Science Foundation’s Very Large Array (VLA) radio telescope to capture the faintest details yet seen in the plasma jets emerging from the microquasar SS 433, an object once dubbed the “enigma of the century.” As a result, they have changed scientists’ understanding of the jets and settled the controversy over its distance “beyond all reasonable doubt,” they said.

SS 433 is a neutron star or black hole orbited by a “normal” companion star. The powerful gravity of the neutron star or black hole draws material from the stellar wind of its companion into an accretion disk of material tightly circling the dense central object prior to being pulled onto it. This disk propels jets of fast protons and electrons outward from its poles at about a quarter of the speed of light. The disk in SS 433 wobbles like a child’s top, causing its jets to trace a corkscrew in the sky every 162 days.

The new VLA study indicates that the speed of the ejected particles varies over time, contrary to the traditional model for SS 433.

“We found that the actual speed varies between 24 percent to 28 percent of light speed, as opposed to staying constant,” said Katherine Blundell, of the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom. “Amazingly, the jets going in both directions change their speeds simultaneously, producing identical speeds in both directions at any given time,” Blundell added. Blundell worked with Michael Bowler, also of Oxford. The scientists’ findings have been accepted by the Astrophysical Journal Letters.

The new VLA image shows two full turns of the jets’ corkscrew on both sides of the core. Analyzing the image showed that if material came from the core at a constant speed, the jet paths would not accurately match the details of the image.

“By simulating ejections at varying speeds, we were able to produce an exact match to the observed structure,” Blundell explained. The scientists first did their match to one of the jets. “We then were stunned to see that the varying speeds that matched the structure of one jet also exactly reproduced the other jet’s path,” Blundell said. Matching the speeds in the two jets reproduced the observed structure even allowing for the fact that, because one jet is moving more nearly away from us than the other, it takes light longer to reach us from it, she added.

The astrophysicists speculate that the changes in ejection speed may be caused by changes in the rate at which material is transferred from the companion star onto the accretion disk.

The detailed new VLA image also allowed the astrophysicists to determine that SS 433 is nearly 18,000 light-years distant from Earth. Earlier estimates had the object, in the constellation Aquila, as near as 10,000 light-years. An accurate distance, the scientists said, now allows them to better determine the age of the shell of debris blown out by the supernova explosion that created the dense, compact object in the microquasar. Knowing the distance accurately also allows them to measure the actual brightness of the microquasar’s components, and this, they said, improves their understanding of the physical processes at work in the system.

The breakthrough image was made using 10 hours of observing time with the VLA in a configuration that maximizes the VLA’s ability to see fine detail. It represents the longest “time exposure” of SS 433 at radio wavelengths, and thus shows the faintest details. It also represents the best such image that can be done with current technology. Because the jets in SS 433 are moving, their image would be “smeared” in a longer observation. In order to see even fainter details in the jets, the astrophysicists must await the greater sensitivity of the Expanded VLA, set to become available in a few years.

SS 433 was the first example of what now are termed microquasars, binary systems with either a neutron star or black hole orbited by another star, and emitting jets of material at high speeds. The strange stellar system received a wealth of media coverage in the late 1970s and early 1980s. A 1981 Sky & Telescope article was entitled, “SS 433 — Enigma of the Century.”

Because microquasars in our own Milky Way Galaxy are thought to produce their high-speed jets of material through processes similar to those that produce jets from the cores of galaxies, the nearby microquasars serve as a convenient “laboratory” for studying the physics of jets. The microquasars are closer and show changes more quickly than their larger cousins.

Katherine Blundell is a University Research Fellow funded by the UK’s Royal Society.

The National Radio Astronomy Observatory is a facility of the National Science Foundation, operated under cooperative agreement by Associated Universities, Inc.

Original Source: NRAO News Release

NASA’s New Supercomputer is World’s Fastest

NASA unveils its newest supercomputer today during a ribbon-cutting ceremony at the agency’s Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif. The “Columbia” is one of the world’s most powerful supercomputing systems. Columbia was named to honor the crew of the Space Shuttle Columbia lost Feb. 1, 2003.

“This amazing new supercomputer system dramatically increases NASA’s capabilities and revolutionizes our capacity for conducting scientific research and engineering design,” said NASA Ames Research Center Director G. Scott Hubbard. “It will be one of the fastest, largest and most productive supercomputers in the world, providing an estimated 10-fold increase in NASA’s supercomputing capacity. It is already having a major impact on NASA’s science, aeronautics and exploration programs, in addition to playing a critical role in preparing the Space Shuttle for return to safe flight next year,” Hubbard said.

Comprised of an integrated cluster of 20 interconnected SGI? Altix? 512-processor systems, for a total of 10,240 Intel? Itanium? 2 processors, Columbia was built and installed at the NASA Advanced Supercomputing facility at Ames in less than 120 days.

“The Columbia system is a tremendous development for NASA and the nation. Simulation of the evolution of the Earth and planetary ecosystems with high fidelity has been beyond the reach of Earth scientists for decades,” NASA’s Deputy Associate Administrator, Science Mission Directorate Ghassem Asrar said. “With Columbia, scientists are already seeing dramatic improvements in the fidelity of simulations in such areas as hurricane track prediction, global ocean circulation, prediction of large scale structures in the universe, and the physics of supernova detonations,” he said.

Columbia provides an integrated computing, visualization and data storage environment to help NASA meet its mission goals and the Vision for Space Exploration. The new system builds upon the highly successful collaboration between NASA, Silicon Graphics, Inc. (SGI) and Intel Corporation that developed the world’s first 512-processor Linux server. The server, the SGI? Altix? located at Ames was named “Kalpana,” after Columbia astronaut and Ames’ alumna Kalpana Chawla.

“With SGI and Intel, we set out to revitalize NASA’s computing capabilities, and the Columbia system has done so in a spectacular way,” said Walt Brooks, chief of NASA’s Advanced Supercomputing Division. “Not only were scientists doing real Earth and space analysis during the system build, but within days of the full installation, we achieved a Linpack benchmark rating of 42.7 teraflops on 16 nodes with an 88 percent efficiency rating, exceeding the current best reported number by a significant margin,” he said.

“With the completion of the Columbia system, NASA, SGI and Intel have created a powerful national resource, one that will serve scientists who strive to unlock the mysteries of this planet and the universe in which it dwells,” said SGI CEO Bob Bishop. “NASA should be commended for the remarkable boldness that made the new Columbia computer happen. Our long-standing partnership with the agency has triggered a new age in scientific discovery, and based on NASA’s initial success, it seems likely that we’ll be discussing new scientific breakthroughs in the very near future,” he said.
“The launching of the Columbia system shows what’s possible when government and technology leaders work together toward a goal of truly national importance,” said Paul Otellini, president and COO of Intel Corporation. “While this Itanium 2 processor-based system will be one of the highest performing computers ever created in the world, the real value is how this system will accelerate scientific design and research faster than before for years to come.”
The almost instant productivity of the Columbia supercomputer architecture and technology has made the system available to a broad spectrum of NASA-sponsored scientists. Feedback from scientists is extremely positive. Columbia already is enabling scientists to conduct research and analyze complex data much faster in a variety of scientific disciplines. The research and analysis ranges from providing more accurate hurricane predictions, to climate change, galaxy formation, black holes and supernovas.

Thanks to the powerful Columbia supercomputer, NASA scientists have developed an improved global circulation model. Initial results from this new model accurately predict when a hurricane is expected to hit land five days in advance, three days sooner than current methods, thereby helping reduce the potential impact on life and property.

Original Source: NASA News Release

Cassini Snaps Titan Close Up

The Cassini spacecraft beamed back information and pictures tonight after successfully skimming the hazy atmosphere of Saturn?s moon Titan. NASA’s Deep Space Network tracking station in Madrid, Spain, acquired a signal at about 6:25 p.m. Pacific Daylight Time (9:25 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time). As anticipated, the spacecraft came within 1,200 kilometers (750 miles) of Titan’s surface.

At the time, Cassini was about 1.3 billion kilometers (826 million miles) from Earth. Numerous images, perhaps as many as 500, were taken by the visible light camera and were being transmitted back to Earth. It takes 1 hour and 14 minutes for the images to travel from the spacecraft to Earth. The downlink of data will continue through the night into the early morning hours. Cassini project engineers will continue to keep a close watch on a rainstorm in Spain, which may interrupt the flow of data from the spacecraft.

The flyby was by far the closest any spacecraft has ever come to Titan, the largest moon of Saturn, perpetually drenched in a thick blanket of smog. Titan is a prime target of the Cassini-Huygens mission because it is the only moon in our solar system with an atmosphere. It is a cosmic time capsule that offers a look back in time to see what Earth might have been like before the appearance of life.

The Huygens probe, built and operated by the European Space Agency, is attached to Cassini; its release is planned on Christmas Eve. It will descend through Titan’s opaque atmosphere on Jan. 14, 2005, to collect data and touch down on the surface.

The latest information and images from Cassini are available at Additional information on the mission and raw images are at

The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the Cassini-Huygens mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, Washington, D.C.

Original Source: NASA/JPL/SSI News Release

Dark Matter Halo Puzzles Astronomers

Dark matter continues to confound astronomers, as NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory demonstrated with the detection of an extensive envelope of dark matter around an isolated elliptical galaxy. This discovery conflicts with optical data that suggest a dearth of dark matter around similar galaxies, and raises questions about how galaxies acquire and keep such dark matter halos.

The observed galaxy, known as NGC 4555, is unusual in that it is a fairly large, elliptical galaxy that is not part of a group or cluster of galaxies. In a paper to be published in the November 1, 2004 issue of the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, Ewan O’Sullivan of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, MA and Trevor Ponman of the University of Birmingham, United Kingdom, use the Chandra data to show that the galaxy is embedded in a cloud of 10-million-degree-Celsius gas.

This hot gas cloud has a diameter of about 400,000 light years, about twice that of the visible galaxy. An enormous envelope, or halo, of dark matter is needed to confine the hot cloud to the galaxy. The total mass of the dark matter halo is about ten times the combined mass of the stars in the galaxy, and 300 times the mass of the hot gas cloud.

A growing body of evidence indicates that dark matter – which interacts with itself and “normal” matter only through gravity – is the dominant form of matter in the universe. According to the popular “cold dark matter” theory, dark matter consists of mysterious particles left over from the dense early universe that were moving slowly when galaxies and galaxy clusters began to form.

“The observed properties of NGC 4555 confirm that elliptical galaxies can posses dark matter halos of their own, regardless of their environment,” said O’Sullivan. “This raises an important question: what determines whether elliptical galaxies have dark matter halos?”

Most large elliptical galaxies are found in groups and clusters of galaxies, and are likely the product of the merger of two spiral galaxies. In such an environment, the dark matter halos can be stripped away by gravitational tidal force and added to other galaxies or the group as a whole. Therefore, it is difficult to determine how much dark matter the original galaxies had, and how much they have lost to the group as a whole through interactions with their environment.

The importance of the issue of the intrinsic amount of dark matter associated with an elliptical galaxy has recently increased owing to a report by an international team of astronomers led by Aaron Romanowsky of the University of Nottingham, United Kingdom. This team found little, if any evidence of dark matter in three relatively nearby elliptical galaxies. Two of these were in loose galaxy groups, and one was isolated. Their result, based on optical data from the 4.2 meter William Herschel Telescope on the Spanish island of La Palma, is in clear conflict with the X-ray data on NGC 4555. The optical technique used to search for dark matter in the nearby elliptical galaxies could not be applied to NGC 4555 because it is more than 3 times as far away from Earth.

Either the galaxies observed by Romanowsky and colleagues have lost their dark matter halos through earlier interactions with other galaxies, or their dark matter halos are much more extended, or they formed without dark matter halos. The first option is possible for the galaxies in groups, but very unlikely for the isolated galaxy. The second and third options are still open, but would require a modification – perhaps a major modification – of the cold dark matter theory of galaxy formation.

“This is clearly a question which deserves further consideration,” said O’Sullivan. “It seems likely that much more theoretical and observational work on elliptical galaxies will be required before this issue can be resolved.”

Chandra observed NGC 4555 with its Advanced CCD Imaging Spectrometer (ACIS) in February 2003. NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, Ala., manages the Chandra program for NASA’s Office of Space Science, Washington. Northrop Grumman of Redondo Beach, Calif., formerly TRW, Inc., was the prime development contractor for the observatory. The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory controls science and flight operations from the Chandra X-ray Center in Cambridge, Mass.

Additional information and images are available at:

Original Source: Chandra News Release

Cassini Closes in on Titan

This image taken on Oct. 24, 2004, reveals Titan’s bright “continent-sized” terrain known as Xanadu. It was acquired with the narrow angle camera on Cassini’s imaging science subsystem through a spectral filter centered at 938 nanometers, a wavelength region at which Titan’s surface can be most easily detected. The surface is seen at a higher contrast than in previously released imaging science subsystem images due to a lower phase angle (Sun-Titan-Cassini angle), which minimizes scattering by the haze.

The image shows details about 10 times smaller than those seen from Earth. Surface materials with different brightness properties (or albedos) rather than topographic shading are highlighted. The image has been calibrated and slightly enhanced for contrast. It will be further processed to reduce atmospheric blurring and to optimize mapping of surface features. The origin and geography of Xanadu remain mysteries at this range. Bright features near the south pole (bottom) are clouds. On Oct. 26, Cassini will acquire images of features in the central-left portion of this image from a position about 100 times closer.

The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the Cassini-Huygens mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, Washington, D.C. The Cassini orbiter and its two onboard cameras were designed, developed and assembled at JPL. The imaging team is based at the Space Science Institute, Boulder, Colo.

For more information about the Cassini-Huygens mission, visit and the Cassini imaging team home page, .

Original Source: NASA/JPL/SSI News Release

What’s Up This Week? Oct. 25 – 31, 2004

Monday, October 25 – The waxing Moon will dominate the early evening skies, but tonight is an excellent opportunity for binoculars and telescopes to explore crater Tycho. Named for Danish astronomer, Tycho Brahe, this fantastic impact crater will be very impressive in even the most modest of optical aids. Spanning 85 km (56 miles), this lunar feature is very prominent and unmistakable in the southern hemisphere of the Moon. Tycho’s highly conspicuous ray systems support its impact crater theory and span hundreds of kilometers across the lunar surface. Tycho is also one of the youngest of the major features at an astounding age of only 50 million years old!

On January 9, 1968 Surveyor 7 (the last lunar robot of its kind) landed quietly on Tycho’s slopes at sunrise. Because previous Surveyor missions had provided the Apollo program with all the data necessary to their goals, Surveyor 7’s presence was scientific only. Two weeks later, when the Sun set on the landing site, Surveyor 7 had provided over 21,000 photographs, determined physical and chemical properties associated with the Southern Highland area and recorded the laser beams aimed toward it from two seperate Earth observatories.

Tuesday, October 26 – Begin your astronomy day by getting up before local sunrise this morning to view the planets. No scope is necessary for this excercise, but it is time to become familiar with the positions of the planets for there will be some excitement involving them coming in the days and weeks ahead. Facing east before local dawn, Venus is unmistakable. Far outshining any star in the sky, Venus will be due east and not too far above the horizon. (note how much brighter Venus appears at -4.0 magntiude than -1.42 Sirius to the south.) Lower yet than Venus on the eastern front, and not nearly as bright is Jupiter. A bit more difficult to spot amoungst the bright stars of the winter constellations, (but not impossible for the novice) is Saturn. Seasoned skywatchers know Saturn is currently in Gemini, but what if you’re new to the game? Try doing this. While facing east, point your finger at Venus then extend your arm straight over your head and ever so slightly to the south. There you will see three “stars” of similar brightness – but only two of these are stars. Castor and Pollux are the two primary stars of the constellation of Gemini and will appear less than a fist’s width apart and slanted slightly from east/southest to north/northwest. About one fist width west and slighly to the south, you will see another “yellowish” star. That’s no star. You’ve just found Saturn! Now, go back to Jupiter and Venus and trace a line between all three and you will begin to understand the ecliptic plane. For rural viewers with a clear, dark and low horizon? A real challenge will be to spot tiny red Mars who is also back on the scene.

Tonight the very gibbous Moon will command the skies and give unaided observers an opportunity to use their imaginations.

Since the dawn of mankind, we have been gazing at the Moon and seeing fanciful shapes in the lunar features. Tonight as the Moon rises is your chance to catch “The Rabbit In The Moon”. The “Rabbit” is a compilation of all the dark maria. The Oceanus Procellarum forms the “ear” while the Mare Humorum makes the “nose”. The “body” is Mare Ibrium and the “front legs” appear to be Mare Nubium. Mare Serentatis is the “backside” and the picture is complete where Mare Tranquilitatus and Mare Fecunditatis shape the “hind legs” with Crisium as the “tail”.

See the Moon with an open mind and open eyes — and find the “Rabbit”!

For telescopes and binoculars, the lunar surface will provide a bright but superior view of crater Grimaldi. Named for Italian physicist and astronomer, Francesco Grimaldi, this deep grey oval is one of the darkest albedo features on the Moon – only reflecting about 6% of the light. Approximately 430 km (140-145 miles) long, it’s easy to spot along the terminator and just slightly south of the center of the lunar limb. Tonight is the best time to view its mountained walls, for they will disappear and Grimaldi will take on the appearance of a small mare in the light of the full Moon.

Now don’t miss tomorrow!

Wednesday/Thursday, October 27/28 – Tonight’s full moon is also known as the “Hunter’s Moon“, but bright Luna will become the hunted in the starry skies as Earth overtakes it with our shadow… A total lunar eclipse! Because the eclipse will occur across international date lines, we will leave a two day heading for this event. Beginning at 01:04UT (9:04 P.M. EDT) and ending appromately four hours later, the total eclipse offers a wonderfully inspiring event that does not require an optical aid to enjoy. Universe Today will be gathering together a group of astrocameras from around the world with a clear view of the eclipse. Can’t see it in person? Watch it on the Internet with us.

Wishing you all clear skies!

Friday, October 29 – With only a very short time until the Moon rises tonight, take this opportunity to acquaint yourself with the last star in the Summer Triangle – Altair. Facing southwest after local sunset, you will find bright star Alpha Aquilae about 2/3 the distance between the horizon and the zenith for most northern hemisphere skywatchers. As the 12th brightest star in the sky, Altair is also one of our nearest “neighbors” at only 16 light years distance. This main sequence white star is only about one and a half times the size of our own Sol, but nine times brighter. One of the most amazing facts about Altair is its rotation speed. Our own Sun takes 25.4 days to execute a complete orbit, but Altair does it in 6 1/2 hours. Wow!

And speaking of orbit?

On this day in 1961, Enos the chimp, (part of the Mercury-Atlas 2 mission which would attempt three circumnavigations of the Earth) rocketed into outer space and reached orbit. Although two malfunctions occurred during his flight, Enos continued to perform his required operations despite being repeatedly “shocked” instead of “rewarded”. When the Atlas rocket’s thruster system malfunctioned, Mission Control ended his flight after two complete orbits of the Earth. Three hours and 21 minutes after his flight began, Enos re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere and landed safely in the Atlantic Ocean. NASA elevated the chimp’s status to hero and thanks to Enos, mission managers now proclaimed space travel as “safe” for human astronauts!

Tonight’s lunar feature for telescopes and binoculars will be crater Langrenus. Named for Belgian Engineer and Mathematician, Michel Florent van Langren, crater Langrenus will be easily found along the terminator slightly south of center. Its 132 km (85 mile) expanse will appear shallow with a bright central peak.

Keep your binoculars and telescopes handy for later in the evening (21:00 UT), for as the Moon rises higher and higher in the sky, you will find M45 (more commonly known as the “Plieades”) only 1.7 degrees north of the Moon. Make note of the Plieades position, for we will visit it, and its history in two days.

Saturday, October 30 – Tonight many communities around the world will celebrate “Trick Or Treat”, but the real treat for adults will be to give your visitors a view through a telescope. Even if you do not celebrate the season, what’s in store is truly “eye candy” for all ages. Beautiful, bright and colorful, Beta Cygni is an excellent example of an easily split double star. As the second brightest star in the constellation of Cygnus, Albireo lies roughly in the center of the “Summer Triangle” making it a relatively simple target for even urban telescopes.

Albireo’s primary (or brightest) star is around magnitude 4 and a striking orangish color. Its secondary (or B) star is slightly fainter at a bit less than magnitude 5 and often appears to most as a violet blue. Their wide separation of 34.3″ make Beta Cygni an easy split for all telescopes at modest power and even larger binoculars. At approximately 410 light years away, this colorful pair shows a visual separation of about 4400 AU, or a bit over 400 billion miles. As Burnham noted, “It is worth contemplating, in any case, the fact that at least 55 solar systems could be lined up, edge-to-edge, across the space that separates the components of this famous double!”

For those of you who interested in staying up later to “Moon Watch” with telescopes or binoculars, tonight will be a great opportunity to catch Mare Crisium. During this particular phase, Crisium will be on the decline and the position of the terminator will make it appear as if a giant “bite” had been taken off the edge of the Moon.

As the Moon rises, you will notice that Selene is now forming a triangle with Aldebran (Alpha Tauri) and the M45 (the “Plieades”). For those of you with a sense of humor while you’re outdoors? Turn on your radio and imagine the voice of Orson Welles – because “War Of The Worlds” was broadcast on this date in 1938!

Sunday, October 31 – Happy Halloween! Tonight’s astronomical adventure will be about exploring an ancient and well reknowned star cluster associated with this holiday that we’ve kept track of all week — the Plieades! Easily found from a modestly dark site with the unaided eye, the Plieades can be spotted well above the north-eastern horizon within a couple of hours of nightfall. To average skies, many of the 7 bright components will resolve easily without the use of optical aid, but to telescopes and binoculars? The M45 is stunning…

First let’s explore a bit of history. The recogntion of the Plieades dates back to antiquity and it’s known by many names in many cultures. The Greeks and Romans referred to them as the “Starry Seven”, the “Net of Stars”, “The Seven Virgins”, “The Daughters of Pleione” and even “The Children of Atlas”. The Egytians referred to them as “The Stars of Athyr”, the Germans as “Siebengestiren” (the Seven Stars), the Russians as “Baba” after Baba Yaga, the witch who flew through the skies on her fiery broom. The Japanese call them “Suburu”, Norsemen saw them as packs of dogs and the Tonganese as “Matarii” (the Little Eyes). American Indians viewed the Plieades as seven maidens placed high upon a tower to pretect them from the claws of giant bears, and even Tolkien immortalized the stargroup in the “Hobbit” as “Remmirath”. The Plieades have even been mentioned in the Bible! So, you see, no matter where we look in our “starry” history, this cluster of seven bright stars has been part of it.

But let’s have some Halloween fun!

The date of the Plieades culmination (its highest point in the sky) has been celebrated through its rich history by being marked with various festivals and ancient rites — but there is one particular rite that really fits this occasion! What could be more spooky on this date than to imagination a bunch of Druids celebrating the Plieades midnight “high” with Black Sabbath? This night of “unholy revery” is still observed in the modern world as “All Hallow’s Eve” or more commonly as “Halloween”. Although the actual date of the Plieades midnight culmination is now on November 21 instead of October 31, why break with tradition? Thanks to its nebulous regions the M45 looks wonderfully like a “ghost” haunting the starry skies.

Treat yourself and your loved ones to the “scariest” object in the night. Binoculars give an incredible view of the entire region, revealing far more stars than are visible with the naked eye. Small telescopes at lowest power will enjoy the M45’s rich, icy-blue stars and fog-like nebulae. Larger telescopes and higher power reveal many pairs of double stars buried within its silver folds. No matter what you chose, the Plieades definately rocks!

(For those of you tempted to stay up later since Daylight Savings ends tonight? I’ll see you on the light side of the Moon as crater Hercules will be making a fine appearance.)

Until next week? Keep looking up! I wish you clear skies and light speed…~Tammy Plotner

Interview: Dennis Wingo, Author of Moonrush

Let’s assume the money is available and a CISLunar economy is beginning. Where would your job be?

My job would be in two phases.

Phase I is the construction of some portions of the in-space infrastructure needed for the Cis-Lunar economy utilizing my method of in orbit assembly. This would be to construct things like a large solar electric tug (our company Orbital Recovery is developing a small tug to service the GEO comsat market now using conventional methods) that would move heavy payloads from ISS or another orbital facility to the Earth/Moon L1 libration point. This is the optimum location for a supply depot/fueling stop for a Cis-lunar economy. Another piece of hardware would be a reusable lunar lander. It is far easier to build a single stage to orbit vehicle for the Moon versus the earth (2.5 km/sec delta v versus 7 kilometers per second delta v).

Phase II is the development of in-situ resource extraction technology for oxygen, water, and valuable metals such as the Platinum Group metals described in the book. The “waste metals” such as iron, nickel, cobalt, would be used to build up infrastructure on the Moon such as large habitation structures, railroads, power distribution networks, and the like. In phase II we would also develop large heavy lift launch vehicles that would cycle from the Moon’s surface to L1. The amazing thing about President Bush’s announcement on January 14, 2004 was his putting forth the idea of vehicles built on the Moon that would carry us to Mars. If I build a launch vehicle there I am unencumbered with the requirement to make the launch vehicle look like a pencil.

How would you set property rights for Earth’s moon.

Property rights are a difficult subject that brings out heavy emotions on all sides. I would rather do something like establish lease rights for resource utilization on the Moon and then set up open bases that would be available for all who want to use it in favorable locations. There is this idea in the U.N. Outer Space treaty that the Moon is the common heritage of all mankind. Well I agree with that, so is the Earth. That does not preclude the use of the Moon’s resources by folks here on the Earth and there is no way that anyone looking at the problem can make a statement that governments are more capable at extracting those resources than private enterprise. It is funny in a way as over the long term resources are not the greatest value asset on the Moon, there are much more resources in the asteroid belt. The Moon and its environs will be a manufacturing center. Who owns the free space between the Earth and Moon? That is where the long term value places are.

If a CISLunar economy gets going, how long until we get to the next space body and mine it?

The value of the Moon is its time cost of money for the near term. It should be intuitively obvious to the casual observer that the Moon, being three days away, is a more cost effective place to extract resources in the near term than the Near Earth Asteroids (NEA’s). However, that being said, the NEA’s are going to be the much more overall cost effective locations, but only after the infrastructure gets started on the Moon as I described in your first question. I am very certain that we are going to be using Phobos and Deimos as well, both for resources and as a location for a very large base of operations to support Martian development. So, after giving you a long winded answer I expect that it will take less than a decade to do this, again after the Cis-Lunar portion of the economy gets on sound footing.

How could countries get organized to tackle lunar mining? Are there any projects on Earth that could serve as a model?

Well there are huge projects here on the Earth that are direct analogs and companies already in the business of doing it. Take Anglo American Platinum. Recently they spent $3.6 billion U.S. dollars to up the production of Platinum at one mine in South Africa by 74,000 kilograms per year. After the Cis-lunar economy is set up, these numbers are not out of line for a new mine on the Moon. Norlisk, a Russian venture, that owns the Stillwater Platinum mine in Montana is another company. Then you have the mines in Canada at Sudbury that also have the expertise and wherewithal to take on such projects. The Canadian government recently put out a document that stated that just at Sudbury there is over $100 billion dollars worth of nickel still in the ground there. Just one medium nickel/iron impact on the Moon has more Nickel and Platinum Group Metals than that. Again, governments are ill suited to this type of activity as the whole history of the Soviet Union illustrates. As an aside, all of the mines that I mentioned are mining asteroid derived platinum and other metals.

Will there be a point that we’ve wrecked our environment and we’re too late to start mining space?

That is a dang good question. The only thing lacking today to do mining in space, on the Moon, the NEA’s and elsewhere is will. We have the technology, we have the capital, we just don’t seem to be able to get our act together to do it. I think that the reason is that for the last 30 years the guys holding the purse strings have been scientists, concerned with the science value of our nearby celestial orbs. While I am completely supportive of science, science is an inadequate justification for a large scale move into space. It has to be economics. We have it within our power to, within 50 years, to completely eliminate most mining on the Earth, not by legislation but by competition with the much more plentiful resources that are out there waiting to be taken. We have the technical ability to do this and it would be an incredible boon to the terrestrial environment. The World Wildlife Federation just this past week came out with yet another proclamation that we are using more resources from the Earth than is sustainable. Well they should be our greatest supporters because the scale of resource available just between here and Jupiter is billions of times greater than we could possibly use, even with a much larger population than we have today. We do not have a problem with resources. We have a problem of a lack of vision by those in government and in the environmental movement to look at the issues in different ways than has been the norm in the past. The reason for this in the environmental movement is that they are wedded to the central tenant of the “Limits to Growth” that there are no technical solutions to our problem. This is manifestly untrue but is an axiom in those circles. Another reason is that the “space” community, lack the passion of the environmentalist in putting forward our solutions, and rounding up the cash to make it happen. However, I do see hopes out there today that this is changing, and I am doing my part to help. So in the end my answer is that it is up to us and that we do not have to get to that point and we will not unless we are incredibly stupid.

Knowing what you know now but putting yourself in the place of President Kennedy, what if anything would you do differently regarding the 1960’s space initiative.

That is easy, I would have cut off the stupid arguments between the different architectures that went on between Von Braun and Gilruth and went with Von Braun’s Earth Orbit Rendezvous method of going to the Moon. The Saturn I’s and IB’s were in production and flying by 1965 and had the lift capacity of a Delta IV to LEO. The Saturn V with a Skylab type station could have put into place the LEO infrastructure to enable the original Von Braun architecture as outlined in the famous Collier’s articles in the early 1950’s to have happened and the world would be a different place today. It was only in late 1962 that Von Braun caved in order to get us to the Moon by any method, that caused the screw up that has placed out entire civilization at risk by that one decision to abandon the build up in LEO infrastructure. Von Braun saw this in 1962 but knew that we had to beat the Russians and in the end, while we beat the Russians then, we are being beat today by the energy crisis that could end up engulfing the entire world in war. A heck of a bargain.

How does the new US space initiative to return to the Moon support your thinking?

Actually I am very hopeful. It is amazing that president Bush not only mentioned using the resources of the Moon for fuel but also the construction of spaceships there. Even Kennedy did not have that wide ranging of a vision. In execution so far it has been uneven. In February of this year, not long after the president’s announcement, former Congressman Robert Walker spoke at STAIF, a conference in Albuquerque New Mexico about the danger that the “stovepipes” of existing interests within NASA would kill this initiative just as they killed the earlier president Bush’s initiative. He is being proven right in this regard. I truly think that NASA headquarters “gets it” and is trying to do the right thing. The same cannot be said of some of the NASA centers. I ask each and every NASA employee and contractor who thinks that protecting their existing job is the most important thing in the world to ask themselves that is that more important than our collective future? NASA has a choice before it today. There is an old saying that goes “lead, follow, or get the hell out of the way”. Well today there is some great leadership at headquarters and in isolated pockets at the centers. Some are ready to follow just to survive and the rest need to get the hell out of the way.

We cannot go to the Moon or anywhere else with the current NASA/contractor infrastructure inherited from decades of organic growth. O’Keefe knows this, and the defense department knows this as well. It is going to take pressure from inside and outside to make this happen. Burt Rutan fired off the first shot in this new battle. We need those people like Paul Allen, Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, Robert Bigelow, and Walt Anderson who have the passion and the financial wherewithal to provide the competitive pressure on the existing system. Mr. O’Keefe and Craig Steidle and the people around them are liberating some funds to support the community as well. NASA has a chance to help make this happen the right way. I hope that each and every morning these guys get up and think that the future of civilization depends on them doing this right. I know that many of us out here think that way. Again, I am very hopeful that we will make this happen.

Expedition 9 Lands Safely

Image credit: NASA
International Space Station Expedition 9 crewmembers, Commander Gennady Padalka and NASA Science Officer Mike Fincke landed on target in the steppes of Kazakhstan at 8:36 p.m. EDT Saturday after 188 days in space.

Padalka and Fincke had undocked their Soyuz capsule from the orbiting laboratory at 5:08 p.m. EDT and headed home. With them was Russian Space Forces Test Cosmonaut Yuri Shargin, who had come to the Station with the Expedition 10 crew, Commander Leroy Chiao and Cosmonaut Salizhan Sharipov. Shargin spent eight days on the Station doing scientific experiments.

With Padalka and Fincke’s launch in April, six months earlier than initial plans, the two-man crew lived and worked on the Station, conducting scientific experiments and maintaining Station systems.

Fincke led the American scientific research agenda, working in the Destiny Laboratory module of the Space Station for advances to further future exploration.

In addition to continued studies on the effects of weightlessness on the human body, Fincke conducted multiple experiments in the physical sciences, completing more than 100 percent of the research agenda with 24 research experiments.

During their mission, Padalka and Fincke received two Russian Progress Cargo supply ships and conducted four spacewalks.

Soon after the crew’s arrival, one of the Station’s control moment gyroscopes, which control the vehicle’s orientation, lost power and shut down, requiring an unplanned spacewalk to replace a circuit breaker for the part. Donning Russian spacesuits, due to a cooling malfunction of the American spacesuits, Padalka and Fincke headed out into the void for their first time, but had to end the spacewalk within minutes when Fincke’s oxygen system was not operating correctly. On their second attempt, the pair navigated around the American side of the Station and successfully replaced the circuit breaker, restoring power to the gyroscope.

On two subsequent planned spacewalks, Padalka and Fincke replaced a set of samples being tested for their ability to withstand the space environment; they changed out a thruster residue experiment that had gathered data for more than two years; and installed radio antennas and upgraded navigational aids needed for next year’s arrival of the European Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV).

Aside from their planned mission activities, the ninth crew to live on Station experienced a series of events that kept them connected to Earth during their six-month orbital stay.

During an unrelenting hurricane season, Padalka and Fincke captured the fury of an alphabet of tropical weather systems in the Atlantic and Caribbean: Alex, Bonnie, Charley, Frances and Ivan with digital cameras onboard.

From space, they observed both life and death. The crew celebrated the birth of Fincke’s baby daughter, Tarali Paulina, a first-time event for a Station resident and noted the death of former American President Ronald Reagan who first directed the construction of an orbital outpost.

Padalka and Fincke also did their part in inspiring the next generation of explorers in several Earth-bound activities, including a question-and-answer session to students on eating, a life necessity, in space.

Returned to Earth, Padalka and Fincke will take part in debriefings and medical activities in Star City, Russia. They will then travel to Houston in mid-November for further post-flight activities.

Station activities were handed over to the orbiting laboratory’s new residents, Expedition 10 crewmembers Commander Leroy Chiao and ISS Flight Engineer Salizhan Sharipov who arrived eight days ago.

Their mission includes two spacewalks, arrival of two unpiloted Progress supply capsules, and preparation for the arrival of the first Space Shuttle to visit the International Space Station since the Space Shuttle Columbia accident.

Science will continue, much of it with facilities and samples already on the Space Station. The Expedition 10 research agenda remains flexible. It includes experiments in human life sciences and space operations.

Chiao and Sharipov also will work with the Station’s robotic arm, Canadarm2. Their activities will focus on observations outside of the Station, maintaining operator proficiency, and completing the checkout of the Canadarm2 system.

Original Source: NASA News Release

Cassini’s First Titan Flyby Tomorrow

Long hidden behind a thick veil of haze, Titan, the only known moon with an atmosphere, is ready for its close-up on Oct. 26, 2004. This visit by the Cassini spacecraft may settle intense speculation about whether this moon of Saturn harbors oceans of liquid methane and ethane beneath its coat of clouds.

Cassini will fly by Titan at a distance of 1,200 kilometers (745 miles), with closest approach at 9:44 a.m. Pacific Time. This flyby will be nearly 300 times closer than the first Cassini flyby of Titan, on July 3.

This is one of 45 planned flybys of Titan during the four-year tour. Subsequent flybys will bring the spacecraft even closer. Scientists believe Titan’s atmosphere is similar to that of early Earth.

“Cassini will see Titan as it has never been seen before. We expect the onboard instruments will pierce the moon’s dense atmosphere and reveal a whole new world,” said Dr. Charles Elachi, director of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., and team leader for the Cassini radar instrument.

One important goal of this flyby is to confirm scientists’ model of Titan’s atmosphere to prepare for the Huygens probe descent. The probe, built and managed by the European Space Agency, will be cut loose from its mother ship on Christmas Eve and will coast through the atmosphere of Titan. On the way down, the probe will sample the atmosphere with a sophisticated set of scientific instruments.

“Titan has been lying still, waiting. Cassini may finally show us if what we thought of this moon is true, and whether the Huygens probe touchdown will be a splash,” said Dr. Jean-Pierre Lebreton, Huygens project manager and project scientist for the European Space Research and Technology Center, Noordwijk, Netherlands.

Eleven of Cassini’s 12 instruments will be aimed at Titan during this encounter. Scientists hope to learn more about Titan’s interior structure, surface, atmosphere and interaction with Saturn’s magnetosphere. This first in-place sampling of Titan’s atmosphere will help in understanding the atmosphere’s density and composition, which, in turn, will help aid management of the Huygens probe. This flyby will mark the first time Cassini’s imaging radar is used to observe Titan, and is expected to provide topographical maps and show whether there is a liquid or solid surface.

“We know our instrument will see through the haze to Titan’s surface,” said Dr. Robert H. Brown, team leader for the visual and infrared mapping spectrometer, University of Arizona, Tucson. “This encounter is about digging down below the atmosphere and getting our first glimpse of Titan geology.”

Cassini’s ion and neutral mass spectrometer will taste mysterious, subtle flavors in Titan’s atmosphere. “Our instrument will scoop up a breath of Titan’s puffy atmosphere during the flyby,” said Roger Yelle, instrument team member, also with the University of Arizona. The experiment will measure how many molecules of different masses it gathers in the gulp of Titan’s mostly nitrogen, methane-laced atmosphere.

Titan is Saturn’s largest moon. It is larger than Mercury or Pluto and is the second largest moon in the solar system, after Jupiter’s moon Ganymede. Titan is a cold place thought to be inhospitable to life at 95 degrees Kelvin (minus 289 degrees Fahrenheit).

Cassini has performed flawlessly since entering orbit around Saturn on June 30. The team believes that on Tuesday night, all will proceed as planned.

“This is not the same white-knuckle situation we had during Saturn orbit insertion, but there are some things we can’t control,” said Earl Maize, deputy project manager for the Cassini-Huygens mission at JPL. “If a spacecraft anomaly should occur, or if the weather at the tracking stations does not cooperate, the science return may be limited or lost. Although this is an unlikely scenario, the possibility still exists.” Cassini will have only one opportunity to send the data back to Earth before the data are overwritten on the recorders by data from the next set of observations. The first downlink of data by NASA’s Deep Space Network occurs at 6:30 p.m. PDT.

More information on the Cassini-Huygens mission is available at and

The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the Cassini-Huygens mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, Washington, D.C.

Original Source: NASA/JPL News Release

Review: Moonwatch

The book inside is Peter Grego’s Moon Observer Guide. You can read our review of this book here. To sum up, this book talks about types of viewing equipment, how to record observations and what are the neat things too look for. The book is quite comprehensive though for more detail, it’s the map you’ll need.

The Moon map by John Murray gives an index of over 500 prominent features on the Moon’s visible side. Of course in addition to rilles, craters and mares, you will see bright red marks for our probes and landers. This poster would look sharp mounted on any wall. North is at the top so all the names read easily for people in the northern hemisphere. Maybe there is another version for viewers in the southern hemisphere otherwise they will need to turn the map around and learn to read upside down! The map comes folded at 13 by 23 cm and unfolds to about 100 by 70 cm.

The last item, and itself a very nice touch, is a broad sheet with photographs of the Moon. There are 26 images on each side of the sheet which effectively makes for a photograph for each Earth night. An image is about 11 centimetres in diameter. One side has photographs of the view from Earth’s northern hemisphere and the other from Earth’s southern hemisphere though from a quick perusal there’s not much difference between the two.

With this package it’s quite easy and fun to look at the Moon in the night sky. Compare the Moon to one of the photographs on the sheet then go to the book to identify the features then go to the Moon map to pick up on small features or special locations. It’s simple to do and very informative. With Moonwatch – A Complete Starter Pack for the Lunar Observer, Firefly publishers have put together a great Christmas gift great or a good any-day addition to a club or group that wants to get into lunar watching.

To read more reviews, or order the book online, visit

Review by Mark Mortimer