Danger, Here Be Maths

A description of the latest research rabbit hole over at SSDS: where could you put a ping pong ball on the outside of the ISS, let go, and have it stick thanks to orbital mechanics? There is math and pretty pictures.

It’s also a test of \LaTeX  equations in wordpress. So far, so good.

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Yawns as a sign of Progress

The director of JPL, Charles Elachi, gave a great talk at Cornell today. I was impressed by his use of intuitively and emotionally resonant examples like pointing out how long it would take to drive to Mars to illustrate the distance from here to there.

What really got me thinking was when he showed a video of huge groups of people (in addition to the mission control staff) reacting jubilantly to Curiosity landing safely after the ‘7 minutes of terror.’ Some of them were so happy, they were practically crying. I felt those intense emotions too, both during the actual event and while watching the video.

But I also felt a twinge of annoyance. It confused me at first, but then I realized why: I’m annoyed that space exploration is basically as much a risky, extraordinary achievement as it was when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon almost half a decade ago. It’s weird, but sometimes it feels like an endeavor is only truly successful when ever-adaptable humans don’t even think twice about it anymore.

There has been some normalization of space – nobody cares when another GPS satellite is launched, or the crew out on the ISS. However, I feel like that normalization has stalled. Unlike, say, tablets or LEDs I can’t point to anything in space that has normalized recently nor anything that is a big deal now that will be normalized soon.

It’s funny to want this schizophrenia: get more excited! Ok – now stop! But I think that’s a sign of real progress, filtered through the lens of human behavior.

TFHL Musings

Two tinfoil-hat-line-skirting thoughts.

 Uranium In Space – I haven’t heard it discussed, but it seems like one of the most valuable things to mine in space would be uranium or other fissile material. Nuclear reactors are incredibly valuable in space. They are basically the only option for long-term power to meet requirements greater than the amount the sun can provide. And since the sun doesn’t provide much power past the asteroid belt, or during a dust storm on Mars, nuclear power will be important for significant exploration of the solar system.

Unfortunately, it’s an epic regulatory adventure to launch any sort of radioactive material from earth. If a rocket with a radioactive payload were to explode during launch, it could potentially contaminate a huge swatch of land.  So, instead of launching huge chunks of fissile material, why not aggregate it in space? One option is to mine uranium in space (although I have no idea if mineable asteroids or the moon have anywhere near enough to consider.) Launch a little bit on each rocket that goes up and then bring together the pieces in orbit. This would effectively divide the risk into pieces so small they are zero.  You are more likely to suffer adverse effects from old watches than a tiny bit of radioactive material smeared over several hundred miles.

Stop Worrying about Martian Life – We need to stop hobbling space exploration (especially on Mars) by worrying about ‘biological contamination’ – introducing earth bacteria that could mess up tests for present or past Martian life. There will never be a point where it will be possible to say ‘AHA we can conclusively show once and for all that there is/was/never was life on Mars.’

Honestly, I think the upside of unbridled expansion of humanity and earth-originated life generally is huge. The advantages I see far outweigh the disadvantages of ‘biological contamination.’ Finding conclusive answers, even without ‘contamination’ has low probability combined with low impact (the most significant thing we’ll find by now are fossilized microbes.) Of course, I’m also glad that Europeans made their way to North America, so take it all with a grain of salt.

Links of the Week 10-5

Awesome Space Links of the Week 9/29

Making Space

I thought today I would take a little break and let Mason Peck do the talking. Admittedly, he’s my graduate advisor in addition to the Chief Technologist at NASA, but he does such an exquisite job of keeping those roles separate (so well it’s frustrating sometimes) that I don’t think this counts as sucking up. He’s clearly acting in his NASA role in this case.

I really like the ‘massless space exploration’ idea – using what’s already up there – for two big reasons. One is that it ties directly into my research, which can potentially be used to manipulate dead satellites and other debris so that they can be put to new use. Another reason I like the idea is that it’s one of those cases where you get to a wall where people say ‘well, here’s the wall. Can’t beat it.’ But instead of slamming your head against it, you turn left and walk for a while until you get to the door to the other side. This has happened throughout the history of technology – ‘you can’t make blue LEDs,’ ‘you can’t get useful nuclear power,’ ‘useful heavier than air flight is impossible’ to name a few.

The other point to note is that Mason is really advocating a number of different big systems made up of a bunch of little, fairly independent, but interconnected parts. I’ve become increasingly convinced that this paradigm is the way to win in many different domains and it’s really exciting to see it being at least partially endorsed by NASA. Though I should note that what NASA advocates isn’t necessarily what Congress wants or will fund.

‘Tinkering’ is a term and activity that I love, but one not normally associated with space. I’m totally on board for changing that.

Fragile Space Exploration is Fragile

I just finished reading Antifragile. Yeah, it took me a while, but things like life kept getting in the way and I didn’t want to rush a book that’s intended to make you think. Boy, did it make me think.  For the moment, I find myself constantly analyzing things and systems around me – putting them in buckets of ‘fragile,’ ‘robust,’ and ‘antifragile.’ And, I’m sorry to say, but it feels like space exploration (for the moment) sits next to fine china and elderly hips in the ‘fragile’ bucket on many axes:

Politics – At the moment space exploration depends on NASA, and NASA depends on the government. Every time priorities shift on Capitol Hill, projects at NASA get shuffled around, wasting money and effort.

Engineering – Almost anything goes wrong during launch? Mission Failure. Almost anything malfunctions on the entire complex spacecraft? Mission Failure. Bump into something else in space? Mission Failure. Run out of fuel or coolant? Mission Failure. You get the idea.

 Private Space Flight – I am 110% behind private money funding space exploration, but for now it seems like that money comes from a narrow base – earth observation, space tourism, some amount of zero g research, and possible mining in the future.  An industry that rests on such a narrow base screams ‘fragile’ to me.

 Public Interest – Finally, there’s the fact that most people just don’t care that much, so the fate of space exploration is vulnerable to volatility in interest rather than being able to abuse the much more stable motive that is profit-seeking.

 I’m not pointing these fragilities out just to condemn them, but in the hope that the more we explicitly say “this is fragile” the more incentive there will be to change it so that it becomes more robust.