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Sidepodspace update - The moon sunk the Titanic - The latest science and space news, from Waterworld to the moon

Published by Steven Roy

I never thought I would read that

We have all at some point read or heard a sentence and thought it was one we would never read or hear. It was a comment like that by Christine on a post on Google Plus that lead to me writing this post. The subject was a Japanese plan to build a space elevator to carry passengers to a space station a tenth of the distance to the moon. Beyond the space station a nary orbit and has a high tech cable attaching it to the Earth at the equator. The car that travels up the cable will go at 125 mph which sounds fast but it will take 200 hours to get there which is more than 8 days. It is going to have to be a very special lift carriage to keep people entertained for more than a week.

I first heard of space elevators a long time ago and have always been concerned about how you could attach the cable to the ground and guarantee that it could take the load and what would happen if the cable snapped. The idea of a space craft in orbit being tied to the ground like a balloon flying at tens of thousands of miles in altitude has always struck me as purely science fiction.

Why rockets launch at odd times

This post seems to be turning into Christinespace. One of Christine's complaints has always been that rocket launches are scheduled at unusual times like 1 minute past the hour or when there is an 80% chance of bad weather. It seems obvious to question why this happens but NASA has rarely even tried to explain it. At last after many discussions on the subject on sidepodcast finally they have posted an explanation. There are many factors that dictate when a launch should happen. Everything from the position of the sun, the position of the target that the rocket is aimed at and the position of anything like satellites that may be in the path of the launch.

The post explains very well all the factors that have to be considered before scheduling a launch. I wish they had posted this a couple of years ago when we started live commenting launches so that I could have used it to explain the reasons better than I ever did.

Where is Curiosity?

Of course the launch is only the start of things. After that there is a lot that has to happen to get the space craft to its target. I remember a discussion we had on the Curiosity rover that is on the way to Mars right now. We covered the launch but most of the discussion was on the massively over-complicated, harebrained way the rover will land on Mars. I can only assume a great deal of alcohol was damaged while this landing method was being conceived. This is not a wind up. It really is going to land like that and as it is on the way now the people dreamt it up no longer have the opportunity to realise that their plan is incredibly stupid. Given how many Mars missions smash into the planet rather than land you have to wonder why anyone thought it was a good idea to make things way more complicated than the simple landing systems that failed totally.

Anyway we are supposed to be discussing its journey to its eventual doom rather than the doom itself. In space the shortest distance between two points is rarely a straight line. Odd as it seems despite the laws of physics being the same as down here often the fastest way to travel in space is a much longer almost circular path that is many times longer than the possible straight line. You can watch Curiosity's journey live but it is less than riveting. Who would have thought anyone could make interplanetary space travel so dull. NASA really needs to look at how it presents what it does.

Buckyballs in space

Buckyballs or Buckminsterfullerene to use the correct terminology was a theoretical form of carbon that turned out to actually exist. Carbon exists in many forms from graphite to diamond to buckyballs. All are 100% carbon but due to the differing arrangements of atoms they have very different properties. There are 60 carbon atoms in each buckyball and they are arranged in penatagons and hexagons to form a ball. By weird co-incidence the pattern of pentagons and hexagons is exactly the same as has been used in footballs for many years. Buckminsterfullerene is named after Richard Buckminster Fuller who designed geodesic domes which have the same arrangement as buckyballs.

All of that happened on the Earth but NASA's Spitzer telescope has now discovered the solid form of buckyballs in space for the first time . They didn't find a few buckyballs, they found gazillions of them. In fact they found enough to fill a volume equivalent to 10,000 Mount Everests. Unfortunately they are 6500 light years away so it will be a very long time before we can get access to them. This is not the first time buckyballs have been found in space. 15 moons worth were found in 2010 so you have to think there are an awful lot of them out there somewhere.


Relax this is not about the Kevin Costner film.

We know that rocky planets like the Earth are fairly common as are gas giants like Jupiter and Saturn. It seems only reasonable that if planets can exist as solid and gas and can have liquid on them it is only reasonable that a liquid planet could also exist. If such a planet did exist you would expect the Hubble space telescope to be the instrument that found it and that is exactly what happened.

Just to make it as uninteresting as possible the water planet has been named GJ1214b. In effect it is like a gas giant except it is liquid. No doubt it has some kind of solid or effectively solid core.

Life in the moon - not on it

It has long been accepted that the moon is geologically dead. It has no volcanoes or earthquakes and is nothing more than a lump of solid rock. Well it would appear that like a lot of accepted wisdom this is not true. It now appears that the moon has a core that is still hot and its cooling and causing the moon to contract. It also appears that there are geological forces other than contraction at work. That leaves open the possibility that one day astronauts or other people may experience a moonquake. Given that the moon is a lot more stable than the Earth and has only one-sixth of the gravity these should not be anywhere near as terrifying as Earthquakes. Of course with less gravity your feet and everything else don't grip the ground as well so a quake of a magnitude that would do no damage on Earth could result in people and objects being thrown albeit slowly on to the ground.

The weakest link

It seems almost standard practise nowadays that anytime a spacecraft or any other asset used in space exploration gets anywhere near the end of its planned lifetime a plan is put in place to extend it. The ISS was planned to last till 2015 but now that there is no space shuttle to fly large spare parts to it there are plans afoot to expand its working life till 2020 or even 2028.

Engineers are studying how to extend its life and to understand what activities reduce it. The space shuttle because of its weight (mass) did more damage than any other vehicle so the fact that it no longer flies is a good thing. Everything from boosting the station's orbit to astronauts exercising can cause wear and tear that reduces the life of the ISS. It would be a real shame if the station had to be scrapped because it needed one part that was too big for any remaining vehicle to deliver.

Spacex Dragon

With the shuttle grounded some ISS re-supply flights will be performed by private space companies. Spacex will be the first to make a demo flight to the ISS with their Falcon 9 rocket launching their Dragon spacecraft. This mission has been delayed several times and will now not take place before late April. The vehicle is now undergoing final processing after completing simulated launches that involved fuelling and a countdown.

Now it is back in the hangar having cargo loaded, pyrotechnic ordnance installed and propellant for its manoeuvring jets put in place. Once all this and no doubt a check sheet long enough to wipe the smile off the face of the Andrex puppy is complete the vehicle will return to the launch pad and hopefully with minimum delay will blast off to the ISS. Spacex was founded by Elon Musk who previously founded PayPal and Tesla Motors.

It would appear that not all the space shuttles have been grounded. A Lego space shuttle reached an altitude of over 100,000 feet after being launched from Germany.

Mars, Europa and way, way beyond

With NASA having no current human space flights the focus falls on their exploration program. They already have a rover on Mars and another on its way and have an orbiter flying round the red planet so you might think that was enough but they are considering yet another Martian mission. NASA had planned to be part of a joint mission with the European Space Agency to send two more rovers to Mars but have now pulled out of that and are looking at a separate mission with input from the agency's human spaceflight directorate and technology office.

At the same time it is working on the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) which will give NASA a replacement for the Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes. The JWST is optimised for infra-red which because of its longer wavelength travels through space better than visual light. This combined with the very low operating temperature should gives us far better resolution than we have ever seen before.

There is a lot of politicking going on within NASA between people who want to spend every available dollar on Mars exploration to lay the groundwork for a manned mission and those who want to send missions to the outer planets. If the latter group has any success then the first target should be Jupiter's icy moon Europa. I have been waiting a very long time for a mission to go there. Europa has an underground ocean with more water than in all the ocean's on Earth. If there is life anywhere else in the solar system Europa has to be the most likely location. I can't wait to see the first up close pictures of this moon and to see what the first data from the science experiments say. If I could be in charge of NASA for a day my absolute top priorities would be to send men to the moon and Mars and to send a mission to Europa.


Of course NASA is also working on its next generation manned vehicle. Orion is now being constructed in Louisiana and should be at Florida in May. Once there it will be fitted with its heat shield, avionics boxes and flight computers. The first test mission could be as early as 2013 although it will be 8 years after that before the first flight with a crew on board. I always thought technology advances were supposed to shorten lead times not lengthen them. NASA designed, built and flew Mercury, Gemini and Apollo and laded men on the moon in less time than it will take to get Orion carrying people. I know they don't have the unlimited budget any more and it is rocket science but in the end this is just an up to date version of Apollo. It is not like they are trying to design a space shuttle or something really complicated. Oddly after taking all that time the first manned flight is going all the way to the moon and back. Surely a mission that only orbited Earth while everything was debugged would make a lot more sense.

Five rockets in five minutes

We all know that NASA does not have the best record when it comes to launching on schedule. A combination of weather, technical problems and various other reasons regularly result is launches being postponed. So you can imagine my surprise when I read that NASA have a clever plan to launch 5 rockets in 5 minutes to study the high altitude jet stream. It will be very interesting to see how many of the 5 actually launch and how many attempts it will take before the first one actually leaves the ground.


The more we learn about the bodies that occupy the space around us the more similarities we find. It was always thought that only the Earth had liquid water but we now know Europa has more than us and we even know there is a water planet way out there.

Now it has been discovered that oxygen is more prevalent than previously assumed. The Cassini mission has been fabulous since it arrived in the Saturn system and navigated its way through the ring plane. Now it has discovered molecular oxygen around the moon Dione. Before you decide to pack up and move you should know that there is not an awful lot of it and certainly not enough to keep you breathing. You would think finding molecular oxygen on one Saturnian moon would be enough but Cassini also found it on Rhea.

Top secret space plane

Another mission we watched launch a while ago was one carrying the US Air Force's top secret space plane the X-37B. I know it is hard to hide a rocket launch but it seems odd that we get told that a top secret vehicle exists and when it is launched. Well it has now been in orbit for a year doing whatever top secret space planes do. The Air Force seem happy with it but I don't know if that is good or bad because I don't know what it is doing.

The future of space food

We all know that space food has never been exactly appetising and the Michelin inspectors have never had to worry about how to get to the ISS to see if they need to throw any of their stars around. Now that space tourism is becoming a reality it seems reasonable that the kind of people who are able and prepared to splash the necessary huge amounts of cash to get up there is not going to be happy to have to eat foil packed dehydrated meals that are indistinguishable from each other.

Well finally someone has decided that they should find out what is possible given the limited cooking facilities and the cost of delivery. As well as space food they have made some space booze in the form of Brazilian cocktails.

Angry Birds in space

Don Pettit is fast becoming my favourite astronaut. He does the coolest things on the ISS. I previously linked to a video of him showing how it was possible to drink coffee from a cleverly shaped cup in space and now he plays Angry Birds on the ISS with a balloon for a pig.

He then shows how water behaves in zero gravity. It is a little weird to say the least. He is really good at making complicated concepts easily understandable and he really should be broadcasting to kids from space.

Four or five times I thought I had finished this article and I kept finding links I had to share. The one thing I lacked was a good title and then I found out that the moon sunk the Titanic.

The moon sunk the Titanic

Everyone knows the story of the Titanic and how despite supposedly being unsinkable it hit an iceberg at full speed and sunk. Well now it appears that its sinking was assisted by both the moon and the sun. Not only was there a spring tide but the Earth was very close to the Sun and at the same time the Moon was closer to the Earth than it had been for 1,400 years. All of these factors caused the sea level to be higher than normal and that floated icebergs off the land and into the shipping lanes. The Captain of the Titanic has always been criticised for not slowing down because he was trying to get the Blue Ribbon for the fastest crossing of the Atlantic but it turns out that factors he could not possibly have known about conspired against him.