NASA Receives Seed Money For Europa Mission

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Two weeks ago President Barack Obama signed a bill that outlines government spending for the remainder of the fiscal year (until September 30). The bill, H. R. 933, which was passed by the House and Senate before reaching President Obama, includes an increase in funding for NASA’s planetary science research program. One line in particular is peeking the interest of planetary scientists. On page 64, the bill reads: “$75,000,000 shall be for pre-formulation and/or formulation activities for a mission that meets the science goals outlined for the Jupiter Europa mission in the most recent planetary science decadal survey.” NASA has received $75 million to begin developing technology for a mission to Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons.

Europa is slightly smaller than our own moon. It is primarily made out of silicate rock, likely has an iron core, has a thin atmosphere composed primarily of oxygen and its surface is composed of icy water. Recently Europa made headlines after planetary scientists, led by Mike Brown from the California Institute of Technology, discovered the presence of magnesium sulfate salt (Epsom salt) on Europa’s surface. The presence of magnesium sulfate suggests a cycling of Europa’s salty oceans, and possibly an ecosystem beneath the surface.

The “Jupiter Europa mission” hasn’t been specified yet, but many supporters of a mission to Europa believe this indicates government support for the Europa Clipper mission. The Europa Clipper is a concept mission that is currently under study by NASA. This mission would require placing a spacecraft in orbit around Jupiter that would gather information visually about Europa and investigate whether the moon is suitable for life. This theorized Europa Clipper mission would perform 32 flybys of Europa with altitudes varying from 25 km to 2,700 km.

This is great news, but NASA can’t make it to Europa on $75 million. Last year NASA’s planetary budget was cut by 20 percent. This is an optimistic step forward, but don’t stop advocating. Keep telling Congress to double NASA’s budget.

Planck Mission Reveals Second Most Important Image in History

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One of the most interesting and mind boggling times in the universe is in the beginning before we had galaxies and stars and planets, a time that looked nothing like the way we recognize it today. To put things in perspective of what Planck time even is think about 1 second. The amount of Planck time in just one second is more than all the seconds since the Big Bang.

Let’s do some quick math on that.

31,536,000 (seconds in a year) x 13.82 billion years (age of the universe) = 4.35 x 1017 seconds since the Big Bang

Planck time is 10-43 seconds and Planck length is the distance light travels in one Planck time—about 1.616 × 10−35 meters

To put it more plainly Planck time is the time it takes for light to travel a single unit of Planck length (or 1.616 x 10-35 meters). If you take both of these into account you have a Planck unit.  (Check out the blog post from Universe Today for more info)

The new images released by the European Space Agency (ESA) are baby pictures of the universe. However, before we get into the news release about it you need to understand a little more about the Planck era, the images leading up to this current picture, and of course what this means to us or why it’s important.

Continue to Planck Era…

Throw the Rocket in Reverse (Pt.2); Sequestration is a “go”

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Last Saturday on SNL’s  cold opening, “President Obama” brought on representatives from different agencies to talk about the effects of the sequester. One guest, an “astronaut,” said that “Thanks to the budget cuts, our space helmets will no longer have glass, so when we go outside to repair the ship, we’ll just have to hold our breath.” The line was met with laughs, and while the comic relief was humourous, it underscores a very real scenario.

At 11:59 p.m. on Friday, March 1st, the sequester officially took effect. An avoidable crisis that was 16 months in the making and of Congressional design fell down like an axe on budgets throughout the federal government. Its effects, however, are far from certain and difficult to forecast. We wrote an article on the sequester and how we arrived at our current destination last September. Allow us to reiterate, this time with complete certainty, the consequences of failing to deal with the sequester going forward:

  1. NASA will face a revised 5% cut in its budget year totaling $1.458 billion dollars (assuming FY13 numbers).
  2. That percentage exists regardless of whatever NASA’s funding levels are.
  3. The formula will go on for 9 years afterwards.
To those that haven’t done the math, this means that assuming NASA was funded at just its FY13 numbers, that’s a total of $14.58 billion dollars cut from NASA over the course of ten years. To put things in perspective, to build one Space Shuttle costs about $1.7 billion, the Mars Curiosity rover cost $2.5 billion, and the Constellation program (prior to its disposal) would have cost $97 billion over a twelve year period. Relative to NASA’s yearly budget, $14.58 billion is a pretty significant number.

And when it rains, it pours. On March 27th, the Continuing Resolution (CR) that has funded NASA at FY12 levels and that was signed by the president back in September will expire. Either a new CR will be passed with continued funding levels (albeit lower effective funding due to the sequester) or an entirely new FY13 budget will be proposed that will fund the federal government through September 30th. The former is a definite negative for NASA. However, the latter presents several opportunities for Congress to undo damage from the sequester. Negotiations on a budget extension going forward present Democrats and Republicans with ample opportunity to raise funding levels that, taking into consideration the 5% cut put in place by the sequester, would restore funding at previous levels or even increase them. This is likely to be done on a program-by-program basis, and would result in funding levels being raised for some agencies, staying the same for most, and potentially decreasing for a few. Congress could also, with literally one sentence, introduce an amendment to any budget extension that would strike the law that put the sequester in place to begin with. Go figure.

Again, there is a high degree of uncertainty as to the future of NASA and U.S. space policy going forward. As one Facebook member who works at the Johnson Space Center put it:

“[E]verything we have been told by HQ is nothing will change/be cut for the near term as they are taking sort of a wait and see with March 27th CR deadline. In the hopes that if they pass an actual budget it will help backfill the sequestration.”

Even NASA administrators don’t know what will happen. It is worth noting that the implementation of the sequester is also ambiguous, and its actual “start” date can be determined by several factors - POLITICO wrote a good piece on that.

What is certain is how embarrassing this entire scenario is. The only nation that has ever placed a human being on another celestial body, or traveled beyond low Earth orbit for that matter, is now squabbling over how best to nickle-and-dime one of its greatest economic engines. In the coming months, we are planning on ramping up our efforts on Capitol Hill and advocating some creative measures that will ensure sustained funding for NASA and the future of human space exploration. With any conflict comes the opportunity for creative solutions, and while Congress may be mired in partisan squabbles, we are optimistic that with your continued support, the future holds some promising opportunities.

How to Watch Asteroid 2012 DA14′s Flyby of Earth


Copperheads! A historic astronomical circumstance is about to transpire in the skies above Earth (above the skies, technically). A space rock 50 meters wide (160 feet) will be passing just by the good Earth, getting as close as 27,700 kilometers (only 17,200 miles!). Never before has humanity witnessed something so large pass so close to us. But, don’t worry – we are not at risk of a “meeting of heavenly bodies,” as they say. This bad boy will be quietly on its way on the day of February 15, 2013 not to be seen again until 2046.

Asteroid 2012 DA14 was discovered earlier this month by the La Sagra Observatory in southern Spain. According to scientists, this space rock will pass closer to Earth than the Moon (which is 239,000 miles away from us). Even more than that, Asteroid 2012 DA14 will pass within the geosynchronous orbit ring where we park most of our artificial satellites! That’s REAL close.

If it were to hit Earth - and let’s be clear IT WILL NOT - then, according to scientists who are studying this thing, Asteroid 2012 DA14 would enter our atmosphere at a stunning 12.7 km/sec (which is nearly 8 miles per second) and impact with a force around 3 or so megatons of TNT. So…a bad day for any unlucky city or town in the region of the impact zone. However, there is no reason to sell your house just yet because, as we mentioned earlier, Asteroid 2012 DA14 will NOT hit us. The next best thing is watching it safely from the surface of your home planet and being alive in the time of the Internet means you can do just that! Here is some information on where you can watch this historic flyby: Continue reading

NASA Getting Ready to Leave Orbit?


NASA is planning on a “big” announcement soon that may relate to humans returning to the area of the moon after what will be a 40 year hiatus. Rumors floating around the online space policy community point to a possible exploration of the L2 area of the Earth-Moon system in keeping with benchmarks set by President Obama’s NASA Authorization Act of 2010.

John Logsdon, former director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, tells Space.com that NASA may be announcing plans to return humans to the Moon. He further elaborated that these plans may have already been approved by the Obama administration and that NASA was waiting to make the announcement until sometime after the 2012 presidential election, in the event that a Romney administration might have changed NASA’s direction and budget. In keeping with President Obama’s 2010 directive, NASA is currently building the SLS – the Space Launch System – with tentative goals to return to the Moon, reach an asteroid and then orbit Mars by the mid-2030s.

What exactly is NASA planning to do at the L2 point? And what is an L2 Point? First of all, “L2″ refers to one of the Lagrange points, which are a kind of midway area between the gravitational pulls of the Earth and the Moon. Sitting in a Langrange point is a bit like balancing. In theory, it should be a very cost-effective place or park a space station or spacecraft at L2 because you wouldn’t need a lot of fuel to maintain position, relative to other areas of the Earth-Moon system. NASA apparently is hoping to explore L2, which is on the other side of the Moon and is 270,000+ miles away from Earth, as part of the new direction that should lead to Mars. This “gateway spacecraft” would be manned and could be used as a staging area for missions to even further deep space destinations.

NASA hasn’t officially announced anything concrete just yet, and while the general timeline laid out by President Obama is public knowledge (Moon to Asteroid to Mars), the specifics of it haven’t been spelled out by NASA. When this announcement goes down, expect that Penny4NASA will cover the details.

See page 26 of this report for a brief description of what NASA means by a manned station at L2.