Tag: Space exploration

Since When Did the U.S. Take Ownership of Space?

In a largely overlooked bit of news with potentially massive implications, President Barack Obama signed a law in late November authorizing companies to claim legal ownership of any resources or minerals they are able to claim from space.

space_exploration_RoadmapFrankly, I’m astonished. As I read reports of this development, the questions tumbled out and over one another.

What gives the United States any jurisdiction over extraterrestrial object ownership?

I thought that stuff belonged to God or the Universe or to all of humanity?

Wait, not even humanity. If there are other races out there, don’t they get a say?

What makes us so arrogant to think that only earthlings…only earthlings in America…only earthlings in America who happen to be artificial people…can or should even have a say in this?

Just in general, WTF?

I mean, seriously? Perhaps the President should familiarize himself with the nearly 50-year-old United Nations Outer Space Treaty, which the U.S. ratified in 1967. The UN’s Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) has published a significant number of documents describing that treaty and other matters involving space exploration and exploitation which obligate the United States to follow some rules.

Here are some of the basic principles of that treaty. (The full list can be found here.)

  • States shall be responsible for national space activities whether carried out by governmental or non-governmental entities;
  • the exploration and use of outer space shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries and shall be the province of all mankind;
  • outer space shall be free for exploration and use by all States;
  • outer space is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means;

So where does this attempted new law get off? Someone with more clout than me (and that includes just about everyone) needs to call BS on this one!

Dave Winer’s Right, Elon Musk Wrong About Mars

I’ve always respected Dave Winer, even — maybe particularly — when we’ve disagreed. He’s a Big Picture guy who generally exhibits clear thinking and crisp writing on a broad range of subjects. I’ve recently begun paying closer attention to what he’s saying.

In a post today on his blog, Scripting News, he makes the salient point that Elon Musk, one of the brightest inventors and futurists of our time, is wrong-headed when he argues forcefully for the establishment of a million-member society of Earthlings on Mars. Musk, founder and leader of SpaceX, a civilian space exploration company with an already impressive track record of accomplishments, sees a Mars colony as the best hope for mankind’s survival in the wake of the destruction of our home planet’s environment.

Winer quite properly points out that the fatal flaw in this notion is that, “if you think you have an escape hatch, what’s the incentive to make it work here on the only planet that humans inhabit, or can inhabit, that we know of?”

I’ve been making this point for years to my Evangelical Christian friends who pin their future hopes and dreams on a non-physical Heaven. If you believe Planet Earth is essentially a corrupt place filled with Original Sinners and you despair of it ever being redeemable, you are not incentivized to expend great effort to keep it from deteriorating.

Like Dave, I’m a huge booster and fan of interplanetary exploration and I’m certainly not opposed to the idea of creating Earth colonies on other planets we find that might be inhabitable. But to see those settlements as last desperate outposts of humanity in need of cosmic rescue is clearly a mistake.

(Winer also points out another aspect of the fallacy: what makes us think that if we establish a rescue outpost on Mars, or anywhere else, we won’t destroy that location just as we have this one?)

Dawn Orbiting Ceres: First Impressions Promising for Life Signs

The Dawn spacecraft is now safely ensconced in orbit around the dwarf planet Ceres and the transmission of usable and interesting scientific data and imagery has begun in earnest. This is an enormously exciting event for those of us who are interested in space science and exploration. Ceres is the largest object in the asteroid belt.

Photo of Ceres, largest object in asteroid belt, seen from spacecraft Dawn and showing two bright spots

BRIGHT SPOTS on Ceres appear to be evidence of outgasing, which may suggest water beneath surface

As the Dawn spacecraft approached Ceres a couple of weeks ago, scientists were surprised to observe two bright objects on its surface. As it drew closer and achieved orbit, these bright spots were discovered to be at the base of a crater but they remain visible even when the rim of the crater would be expected to be blocking the view. This results in a tentative but plausible conclusion that the spots are connected to what is called “outgasing,” the process of gases beneath the surface of Ceres emitting plumes of gas. This might well indicate the presence of water on Ceres, one of the basic requirements for the presence of any form of carbon-based life such as we Earthlings are familiar with and naively expect all interplanetary life to resemble.

There’s been a lot in the popular mass media about the mission but if you want to dig into what’s really going on and what it means, I suggest you check out the Lunary and Planetary Science Conference (LPSC) Web site. Scientists involved in the mission gave a series of talks yesterday drilling into great detail and sharing a lot of information about the surface, mapping, geology, and other amazingly fascinating stuff.

This is proving to be one of the most important space science missions in our nation’s history of exploration.

Orion Passes First Orbital Flight Test With…As It Were…Flying Colors

The NASA spacecraft designed to handle the first manned mission to Mars underwent its first high-orbit test today and passed it with flying colors. Orion traveled 3,600 miles from Earth during the test, marking the first time since the Apollo 17 moon mission in 1972 that a vehicle designed to carry humans went beyond low Earth orbit.

This is very exciting work even though its fruition is still a long way off. I’d love to live to see it carry out its ultimate objective of taking Earthlings to Mars. That’s the stuff of the real science fiction I devoured as a teen and young adult and have remained interested in, more or less continuously, my whole life.

There are a number of intermediate missions for Orion before she transports Homo sapiens to the Red Planet, of course. It’s an ambitious plan in some ways, though critics have objected that it’s too slow-paced and modest to be worthy of the mission’s multi-hundred-billion-dollar price tag.

But Orion has already begun to restore America’s — and humanity’s — passionate dream of reaching the stars. As NASA spokesman Rob Navias said during live commentary on the perfect test flight, “America has driven a golden spike as it crosses a bridge into the future.” The analogy to the completion of the east-west rail lines in the Frontier West is not lost. During this mission, most of the system’s mission-critical components were thoroughly tested and gigabytes of valuable data gathered for analysis. While this mission was unmanned, it was still a vital first step, resulting in the successful test of something like 55% of the total technology package needed for manned flight operations.

With an anti-science Congress peering blindly into its myoposcope, and grim economic reality at every turn, it’s not clear that NASA will be able to line up the funding it needs for the entire Orion program. Right now, the next flight for the mission isn’t scheduled until 2017 at the earliest and probably won’t happen before 2018. Not because of science limitations but because spending money in space is still a difficult sell despite the billions of dollars in commercial value spun off from previous space efforts.

It is, however, encouraging that the NASA exploration budget that finances Orion is one of the few non-defense budget accounts for which House Republicans have proposed an increase from President Barack Obama’s fiscal 2015 request.

I recognize the problem and I appreciate it. But I think the answer lies not in pruning back space projects but in fostering cooperative undertakings with other space agencies, particularly the European Space Agency (ESA) which is enjoying huge success with the Rosetta mission. We have long since passed the time when nationalistic interests should hold sway in the exploration of space; these need to be Earth missions, humanity-owned-and-operated. I’ve long thought that creating a functional unit of the United Nations to carry out space exploration would go a long way toward addressing a number of issues plaguing national programs. But I expect that’s just another one of my personal windmills.

Meanwhile, I say, “Go, Orion!” and turn my eyes once again skyward if only to dream of the time in the 2030s when Earthlings set foot on the mysterious planet that has held such fascination for science-fiction writers and fans for a century or more.