The power of the free market is finally being brought to bear on the Final Frontier. The new "space race" among private corporations has every intention of succeeding where government has failed: to establish a permanent and diverse human presence in space.
The solar flares erupting from a giant sunspot group during the first week of July were certainly on a much larger scale than America's fireworks displays celebrating the Fourth of July. The solar fireworks hurled charged particles through millions of miles of space, with one blast so intense that it temporarily disrupted radio communications in Europe. Though the charged particles from the sunspot group, labeled by NASA AR1515, did not head directly toward Earth, the solar fireworks were nevertheless sufficient to have an effect. The velocity of the particles was 700 miles per second, and the temperature on the surface of the sun where the activity was generated is estimated to be a mind-numbing 100 million degrees Celsius.
In terminating the Gravity and Extreme Magnetism Small Explorer (GEMS) project, an X-ray telescope mission that was launched to study black holes and various space-time theories, NASA has left taxpayers with a bill worth $43.5 million. The program’s overall price tag was initially marked at $119 million (not including the rocket that was to be launched into orbit), but the space agency has already doled out tens of millions of dollars, and the project was 20 to 30 percent over budget, according to briefing charts received by SpaceNews.com.
Hopes for new private initiatives in manned space flight are reaching new heights following SpaceX’s successful launch of its Dragon capsule into low Earth orbit. The launch of the Dragon on May 22 was the beginning of SpaceX’s first mission to the International Space Station (ISS), fulfilling a job for NASA that the space agency no longer has the capacity to conduct on its own: reach the space station it helped to build.
A new company, Planetary Resources, intends to go into outer space and mine minerals and even water from asteroids near our planet. The Platinum groups of metals, which include ruthenium, rhodium, palladium, osmium, iridium as well as platinum, are found in small concentrations on Earth, which is one reason that these metals are so valuable, but on asteroids the metals can be found in almost pure form and in huge masses.
In the context of last year’s final flight of NASA’s space shuttle, critics and supporters of the federal agency speculated about the future of human space flight — and the role of government in such endeavors. Private industry and several entrepreneurs have sought for many years to create a role for non-governmental space flight. Now one of the leaders in the aerospace industry is projecting a future for human exploration of the solar system with a far less astronomical price tag than those that have accompanied governmental space programs.
Many were surprised when the prediction by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) of potential major disruptions of power grids, Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites, and internet communications as a result of a solar storm failed to materialize. Most were likely totally unaware of the threat.
It was in the fall of 1962 that President John F. Kennedy set forth his vision of seeing Americans successful land on the Moon and return safely by the end of the decade, but an important step on the race to the Moon had already been taken seven months earlier. On February 20, 1962, a 40-year-old Marine Corps pilot from the state of Ohio became the first American to orbit the Earth. Now, 50 years later, former Sen. John Glenn (D-Ohio) still insists he never saw himself as a hero, but a nation that was in the depths of the Cold War at the time of his flight aboard the Friendship 7 spacecraft would have disagreed.
The field of private space ventures is gaining a new competitor, Stratolaunch Systems, the brainchild of former Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen. According to press reports, Allen is prepared to commit at least $200 million of his own fortune to the creation of a launch vehicle he believes will allow for inexpensive launches of satellites into low Earth orbit.
A flawless launch from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on November 26 has NASA’s latest mission to Mars safely on its nearly nine-month journey to the red planet. NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory, a rover that has also been given the name Curiosity, is the American space agency’s most advanced rover to date, and its mission is nothing less than to continue the search for life on Mars and prepare for future human exploration.
As NASA prepares for the November 25 launch of America’s next mission to Mars, the recent experience of the joint Russian-Chinese Phobos-Grunt probe (pictured at left) is a poignant reminder of how many missions to the Red Planet have ended in failure.