Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Here. There. Everywhere! (Part 3)

Tonight, I think it's time to do a little bit of discussing about what's going on in astronomy with the moon recently. More than one person that knows I'm an astronomy geek has heard the news that we're planning on crashing a probe into the moon.

I'll discuss how, when and more importantly why a bit later, but first I think it's important to give a bit of background, since the moon is pretty cool and all.

As most of you should know, the US has landed on the moon beginning with Apollo 11. From there, several more Apollo missions (up through 17) landed on the moon, with the obvious exception of Apollo 13. And then after 17, NASA's funding dried up due to Americans losing interest now that the Cold War was ending.

As Commander Gene Cernan (who I had the fortune of meeting 2 years ago) left the moon, he said: "As we leave the Moon and Taurus-Littrow, we leave as we came, and God willing, as we shall return, with peace and hope for all mankind. As I take these last steps from the surface for some time to come, I'd just like to record that America's challenge of today has forged man's destiny of tomorrow. Godspeed the crew of Apollo Seventeen."

Since then, man has not returned.

However, president Bush is looking to change that. Nearly two years ago, Bush announced his bold "Space Vision". In short, he planned to retire the current shuttle fleet which is incapable of getting beyond Earth's orbit, by 2010, and replace it with a "Crew Exploration Vehicle" (CEV) which would be able to take astronauts to the moon by 2020.

In preparation, new rovers and orbiters would be sent to the moon to find suitable landing spots. The eventual goal is to land humans on Mars and the moon will be used as a "stepping stone" in which to practice our technology. Another goal is to establish a colony on the moon. These robot scouts would attempt to find suitable locations which would later be followed up by human explorers.

However, before I discuss what's being done to accomplish these goals (and how smacking a massive probe into the moon at several miles a second), I feel obliged to discuss why I, and a very large number of others, are extremely dissatisfied with Bush's "vision".

As with many things, the issue comes down to funding. NASA's current budget is just over 16 billion per year. However, nearly 6 billion of this is eaten by the shuttle fleet alone! So that leaves 10 billion for everything else. Which is a lot. NASA is also responsible for operating a large number of satellites (including the venerable Hubble), as well as earth based observatories, and a very large number of research grants, among other things.

To fulfill this "vision", NASA will have to seriously reallocate its funds, which will significantly slash funds for scientific ventures such as the ones I'm involved in. This has left us research astronomers rather annoyed. It's likely to be a large factor in the uncertain fate of the Hubble, as well as the on again, off again funding of the astrobiology program.

In addition, Bush also plans to abandon the International Space Station as soon as its completed (and likely only because we're obliged to due to our agreements with other nations on the matter), given that we won't have a shuttle capable of accessing it until the new CEV is finished. Without the US providing access, Russia will be the only other country capable of taking astronauts there. This has caused the space agencies of several other countries to be rather annoyed with the sudden change in plans.

And even with the reallocation of the majority of NASA's funds, many critics argue whether or not that will be enough to accomplish Bush's vision. Back in the 1960's the Apollo program recieved a generous 1% of the national budget. Yet today, even with inflation, NASA recieves barely a fraction of that.

Aside from the economic reasons behind this, I'm personally skeptical of the president's motivation in these matters. When the president proposes limiting stem-cell research, promotes Intelligent Design, and otherwise hinders science as a whole, this move to shoot for the moon seems like little more than a cheap shot at appeasing science minded voters.

But regardless of my feelings, or the feelings of many other astronomers, Bush's plan is still moving forward. And while I may feel that it's not the best course of action for our dollar, it is still slated to produce some very interesting science.

Since one of the goals is to set up a possible colony, or at the very least, a long term station, finding suitable places is a high priority. The landing area should be flat enough that the lander won't have trouble landing. Any resources at the site would also be beneficial. Chief amongst these is water.

"Water?!" you say. Yes. Water. Since water is vital, yet extremely heavy to carry (and thus expensive), finding a place where water may be avilable would be a huge asset. Previous chemical mappings of the moon have revealed that the moon contains large areas that have hydrogen. But pure hydrogen is a gas. And a very light gas at that. Thus, any hydrogen in gaseous form on the moon would simply float away like any other atmosphere the moon would have, given how puny it is.

Thus, for hydrogen to be present, it must be locked up in something. Water (H2O) is excellent at doing just this. But as of yet, astronomers aren't sure if that hydrogen really is water. Thus, we'll have to find out.

To map the surface with extremely high resolution, NASA is planning on sending a new orbiter called the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), which will map the surface at unprecedented detail. To get it there will require a powerful rocket. But NASA is good at those. In fact, they're so good, they actually had a little bit of room left over.

To fill the extra seat, NASA asked for submissions of ideas. While it recieved a fair number, the one that won out was a repeat of the Deep Impact mission. Deep Impact slammed a giant impactor into a comet at 23,000 mph.

This seems a crazy thing to do, and when I discuss this mission, people are always stunned and ask "Why on Earth would we do something like that?"

My sarcastic response is always "To see if it has a cream filling." Ironically, this isn't far from the truth. Since interesting material is frequently burried, the easiest way to do some excavation is with a massive impact. The impact sends out a gigantic plume of material which can then be studied by a following spacecraft that will analyze that proverbial cream filling.

This is the same idea for the lunar impacting mission which has been dubbed LCrOSS. The mission is scheduled for launch in 2008. The impact is expected to create a crater about 1/3 the size of a football field and may be visible by telescopes here on Earth.

So that's where we stand on getting back to the moon at this time. Although I'm disappointed at seeing funding slashed in the fields I plan to study, this mission should still produce some exciting science that I'm anticipating.

And since this post didn't have any pretty pictures, I'll leave off with this one, taken from Apollo 8:

No comments: