There have been some interesting developments in the land of Geekdom. First off, a private company, SpaceX (nee: Space Exploration Technologies), launched an Apollo-like man-rated capsule into Low Earth Orbit (LEO) and brought it back safely. The Dragon capsule is designed to ferry cargo and/or people to and from the International Space Station (ISS), and was launched from the Falcon 9 Space Lift Vehicle (SLV), both capsule and SLV designed and built by SpaceX. The capsule orbited the Earth twice before re-entering the atmosphere and splashing down in the Pacific ~500mi west of Southern California. The craft deployed parachutes to slow its descent, making the first American water landing since that last Apollo mission in 1975.
The entire undertaking took about 4 hours. Everything went “nominal”, engineer-speak for “as designed”. No surprises. This has import for our stalled manned space program, as NASA has been allowed to atrophy in its area of expertise. SpaceX CEO, Elon Musk, 39, who made a fortune when he sold online payment business PayPal in 2002, said he started SpaceX with the goal of developing and launching rockets at a fraction of the cost of the current generation of spacecraft. He’s poured ~$100 million of his own money into the venture. Russia sends civilians to the ISS for a payment of $20 million, and has offered to send American astronauts up for $50 Million each. Musk pegs the cost of the average space shuttle flight at ~$1 billion. Flights from SpaceX will run ~$100 million, he said.
Now we find that the Falcon wasn’t carrying just the Dragon capsule. Two Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) Naval Center for Space Technology-designed and -built nano-satellites were also carried aboard the Falcon, and deployed “including arrays and antennas … shortly after launch,” said Dr Stephen Arnold, NRL Spacecraft Engineering department electronics engineer. Known as the CubeSat Experiment (QbX), the two 3U (30x10x10cm) CubeSat buses were built by Pumpkin Incorporated [San Francisco], and neither Pumpkin nor the Navy are saying much more about them.
“Currently, the spacecraft are healthy, and experimentation and checkout are continuing,” said Dr Arnold. Spacecraft attitude is controlled by, and operates in, a novel “Space Dart” mode. Due to the atmospheric drag in LEO (300km) they are able to stabilize pointing to within five degrees throughout the orbit. The methodology has been verified on both vehicles and is providing a stable platform for continued experimentation. “It is expected that the QbX vehicles will remain in orbit for about 30 days,” said Arnold. “After which, they will succumb to the effects of atmospheric drag and be destroyed during re-entry to Earth’s atmosphere.”
On April 22, an Atlas 5 heavy lift vehicle roared into orbit with the X-37B atop. Built by Boeing’s Phantom Works, the 11,000-pound craft is 9½ feet tall and just over 29 feet long, with a wingspan of less than 15 feet. It has a cargo bay and two angled tail fins rather than a single vertical stabilizer, resembling a small space shuttle. The highly secret Air Force spacecraft was “placed into orbit for testing,” said Air Force spokesman Jeremy Eggers. Nothing else has been said about it … until December 3, when the Air Force quietly announced that the X-37 had landed itself on a runway at Vandenburg AFB at 0115 Pacific Standard Time.
“We are very pleased that the program completed all the on-orbit objectives for the first mission,” program manager Lieutenant Colonel Troy Giese said in a statement. “Today’s landing culminates a successful mission based on close teamwork between USAF’s 30th Space Wing, Boeing and the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office,” Giese said. Eggers said the craft is expected to return to space next year.
Extending our field of view, a new star census, based on analysis of the light signature of galaxies using instruments at the Keck Observatory [HI], pushes the total number of stars in the universe to 30 times 100-billion-squared. That’s 300 sextillion stars, or about three times the current estimate. This “adjustment” is due to vastly increased amounts of sodium and iron showing up in the spectra of distant galaxies, meaning many more red dwarfs (which are too dim to show up themselves at these distances), per galaxy than previously thought. We had assumed the distribution of red dwarfs in galaxies to approximate that of known examples in our own. That assumption may not be valid.
We know that star formation goes through phases – the first stars were formed of the elemental hydrogen that constituted the early particulate universe, heavy elements only appearing upon these large, primary stars going nova. It may be that some secondary or tertiary phase of star development yielded a large number of stars that ended up as long-lived red dwarfs.
These small, dense stars still have a “Goldilocks” zone, possible orbits not too close and not too far away, within which planets could support liquid water, and therefore some form of life. It is likely, however, that a rocky planet – necessary to exhibit the rich chemistry required for the development of complex compounds – occupying these obits would be in a gravitational lock with its star, like our Moon, with the same hemisphere always facing it and the other always turned away. Even though a red dwarf emits only 1% of the light our Sun does, the starward face of such a planet would roast in temperatures up to 64°C, whereas the dark side sees relentless North Pole-like winters. Life would likely arise in the eternal twilight of the demarcation zone, and because of the dim radiance of the host star, CO2-breathers would probably photosynthesize as much starlight as “sun”-light, making them appear black instead of green, according to modeling by Nancy Kiang of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies [NYC] and collaborators at the University of Washington-based Virtual Planetary Laboratory. Even more interesting, UCal-Santa Cruz astronomer Steven Vogt postulates that the “perpetual sunset” of the demarcation zone means that the specific wavelengths of light reaching each longitude could even prompt a rainbowlike gradient of plant colors with pigments adapted to absorb the light streaming across the surface. The upshot of a vastly larger number of red dwarfs than previously thought is a vastly larger number of stars that could support life-bearing planets.
Interesting, if geeky, stuff.
 To astrophysicists, “heavy” elements are those atoms larger than hydrogen and helium.
 Bryn Nelson, Black Plants and Twilight Zones: New Evidence Prompts Rethinking of Extraterrestrial Life, in Scientific American, December 2010.