When The Moon Hits Your Eye …

Dr. Edward Belbruno was the speaker today, and had been intending to talk about his new book, and how he got into the field of chaotic orbital dynamics. But first we heard him share some of his excitement about the potential for the changes (still not yet official) for NASA and US space exploration.

Ed just got back from China, in particular Shanghai, where he was stunned by the vibrancy of the city, the changes of just the last few years, and how inexpensive everything was (sumptuous dinner for eight people: $12.00). What really made him both excited for China, and depressed about the current state of the US, was the repeated sighting on the local news of Yang Liwei, China’s first astronaut, who seems to have caught his country in a frenzy of space enthusiasm. To Ed it seemed like a combination of New York in the 1900’s (when the skyscrapers first went up) and the US in the 50’s and 60’s – positive, win-win attitudes and enthusiasm and hard work everywhere.

And while he was there, Beagle (is that any name for a spacecraft?) vanished. Even though China hasn’t attempted any lunar or interplanetary probes yet, it seemed further evidence of the decline of the west… But, now we have Spirit on Mars, and the promise of a new direction for NASA at last! Perhaps all is not lost! But some remain skeptical – does NASA really still have it in it, or is it now like a former Olympic athlete eating potato chips and drinking beer while watching reruns of past glories.?

Anyway, Belbruno did eventually get to his fascinating talk on chaotic orbits, capture dynamics, and the story of political machinations at the Jet Propulsion Lab. Interestingly enough, ESA’s Smart-1 craft is following one of Belbruno’s suggested trajectories right now. And Martin Lo’s Interplanetary Superhighway, which was in the news a couple of years back, is all based on Belbruno’s mathematics. Rocket science is actually quite a bit more complicated than everybody thought!

By the way, NSS has chapters even in remote locations like Alabama; no admission normally required for meetings :-)

12 thoughts on “When The Moon Hits Your Eye …”

  1. I listened to a discussion today on the pointlessness of going back to the moon / on to Mars. Many callers were saying we should sort our own planet out before heading to other places. Given that most people here will be of a scientific bent, I’m assuming you’ll disagree. Has anyone got any favourite arguments for shooting down this particular opinion?

    Beagle is named after Darwin’s ship btw…so is therefore ok :-) Sorry, I have to defend my little obsession!

  2. Belbruno did say there’s a way to tell whether Bush’s announcement is intended to really change things, or just politics: the target date to start the lunar base. If we’re back to the moon by 2010 or 2012, that’s significant; it means real change at NASA while Bush is still president (if he gets a second term). If it’s 2015 or later, though, that’s really not a terribly ambitious goal, and is not nearly as significant… I guess we’ll see what the target date is this week.

  3. funnily enough, one of the guards on the building accosted us on the way in, accusing us of pushing the government to waste our money. He asked what good was space for. My quick answer (which many who’ve read my other articles here might have guessed) – solar energy. When the oil in Iraq runs out, we’ll need to turn somewhere – space solar energy is a vast untapped resource for us; it’ll make a huge difference to the future of our nation, if we can capture some of those resources.

  4. Thanks for the reminder of the true origin of the name Beagle.  Of course, you know that all of us Americans knew the name of Darwin’s ship at some point in our lives :-)… but the fact became lost in the mind-maze of other beagles, mainly Charlie Brown’s best friend.

  5. What’s the advantage of space-based solar power compare to nuclear fission, keeping in mind that one exists and the other does not? What’s the advantage over fusion? Both don’t exist. Why do you need to go to the Moon or Mars for solar power?

  6. If you’d actually read the global warming story, you’d have your answers…

    *1 – Fission is too expensive. The French don’t have many other options, and heavily subsidize it. All US reactors were subsidized too – they stopped building them 25 years ago because of the expense (you could blame the expense on the environemntal review process, but still, it’s there). Also, supplying non-fossil energy needs this century with fission would require multiplying the number of reactors worldwide by about a factor of 10, and (unless we found new ways to mine uranium from very low grade ores or seawater) would require breeder reactors and fuel reprocessing as well. Think we have a WMD problem in the world right now? What would it be like with 100’s of times more plutonium being extracted from spent fuel?

    *2 – Fusion, unfortunately, is still in a “which reactor design will work” mode, and these are pretty major questions. The tokomak design, on which the multi-billion dollar ITER project is based, has magnetic coils on the inside of the plasma; these will be destroyed by radiation in too short a period of time to be useful for a commercial reactor; in fact the ITER project isn’t even planning to use real fuel (deuterium-tritium, rather than deuterium-deuterium) until almost the end of the project, to avoid this problem. There are proposed solutions with “liquid walls” and spherical designs, and then there are the various intertial designs. Replicating the sun on the Earth is going to be exceedingly difficult and expensive, at least for the next 50 years or so.

    Why go to space for solar power? Sunlight 24×365. On Earth in the average location you get the equivalent of full sun just 2-3 hours/day. Even the best locations get only about 5-6 hours/day worth. Currently the cost of solar photovoltaics is prohibitive, but in space you wouldn’t need nearly as much of them. Of course the cost of launch is too high too, but at least people are hoping there are solutions to that problem.

  7. 1 – Fission is too expensive.

    I’ll double check, but as far as I know, fission is the second cheapest to hydro.

    we have a WMD problem in the world

    You have WMD problem? I see JWB has this same problem too. Must be contageous :-). But seriously. So far it has not been confirmed. Not even close. Could it be the same problem as the man-made global warming?

    2 – Fusion, unfortunately, is still in a “which reactor design will work” mode

    OK, ok, so it does not exist yet. Where can I see the space-based solar power plant?

    Why go to space for solar power?

    That’s not my question. I have not seen anyone asking this particular question. Why are you answering it? My question was why do you need to go to the Moon or Mars for solar power? Let’s make it simple. What’s the point in going to the Moon?

  8. I agree that Mars is irrelevant to this particular issue; other people can argue their reasons for going to Mars.

    But why the Moon? Once we’re there, launching materials from the Moon for large-scale space construction takes far less energy than launching from Earth, and there’s no atmosphere so you can launch at orbital speed from the surface if you want. It’ll mean establishing mining and manufacturing facilities there, etc. Yes, that’s not going to happen tomorrow – but the sooner we get back on the surface, the sooner the rest of this can happen.

    You don’t have to go back to the Moon to get space solar power of course. But building a large-scale orbital infrastructure and ignoring the Moon is probably not the right way to go.

  9. But building a large-scale orbital infrastructure and ignoring the Moon is probably not the right way to go.

    If the goal is the ability to build large space objects, then why not address the problem directly? The major problem in space exploration as I see it is the cost of reaching the orbit. Why not work on that directly instead of going to the Moon? Cheap space vehicle or Clark’s space elevator IMHO would be a LOT more useful than a Moon base. And would probably have similar costs.

  10. Cost to orbit is one key to all of this. A re-invigorated US space program (or competition from other nations like China) should bring those costs way down. Technology incentives, tax breaks, prizes for commercial activity, etc. really should be a part of all this, not just a massive NASA investment. But one primary obstacle to lower cost to orbit is the lack of a market, right now – the last few years worldwide rocket launches have been only half what they were a decade ago. The US launch industry is half-dead right now, though Sea Launch (part owned by Boeing) seems to be doing quite well.

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