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… about science & space, people & politics, various musings & other cool things too.

Month: July 2013

Humanity’s Historical Heritage is in Space


An inevitable consequence of the passage of time is the ultimate destruction of all people, places, and things from our history. As time goes on, people die, civilizations collapse, and cities crumble. The cultures and customs of the societies of the past are distant and unfamiliar to those in the present, and by being so will eventually disappear. Even our ideas, religions, philosophies, and politics will change and alter over time, until they have become something altogether different. The unfortunate result of this is that an observer of the past is given very little to work with and study. Because of the written word, we are able to glimpse at the events and characters of the past; reading historical accounts and primary source perspectives allows us to view a world which no longer exists. It is from these that much of our knowledge of the past is derived. Yet without these accounts, much of the past would forever be lost, and the vestiges of the ancient world which still remain today are in the process of decaying and disappearing. What will an observer from the far future know about our present time and our own past? Will any of the evidence that we have of the past survive?

We owe the destruction and decay of our past to a number of factors. The natural environment simply weathers away the architecture and geography of the past. Without maintenance, the ancient buildings and monuments we remember distant civilizations and deceased people with will eventually rust, corrode, or crumble. The actions of the people in our own time also cause this destruction. Building over ancient terrain and buildings and destroying or damaging historical landmarks and sites are only some ways in which our history is lost by our own hand. Constant changes in society, culture, and customs mean that the traditions of the past become unfamiliar, and eventually no longer practiced. Once these traditions are no longer widely practiced, they become a feature of the past, and eventually disappear all together.

While considering the loss of our history by all of these factors, we can come across a remarkable realization. There are some objects which humanity has produced which will never be lost to history. They will forever be a representation of humanity at a certain place and point in time. Impervious to the normal natural decay and human desecration which destroys much of our historical heritage, these objects could very well survive in their present condition for eons. For an observer in the far distant future, these may very well be the only surviving items of the human civilization. These objects are our space probes.

Littered across the bodies of our solar system and in orbit above and around them are humanity’s satellites and space probes. Our species has only explored outer space for the last half century, but during this time hundreds of these vessels have been sent to various places across our solar system. Some, such as the Pioneer spacecraft and the Voyager probes, have been flung into deep space on trajectories away from our Sun. These craft will travel interstellar space for hundreds of thousands of years. They will eventually become the most distant, and the longest lasting, record of the human civilization’s existence. In space, there is very little that could harm these crafts. Micrometeorites or other orbital collisions may damage them, but there is otherwise nothing which could destroy these ships. Unless they fall out of their orbits and crash into the planet they are orbiting, these probes could potentially be orbiting our world and the other worlds of the solar system long after humanity has disappeared.


This is an incredibly exciting and interesting thought. The second half of the 20th century and humanity’s first forays into space will, barring any human damage, remain forever in the same shape and form as we have left them. The Apollo capsules and hardware on the Moon, remains from the first Human landings in the 1960s and 1970s, still sit in the places where they were left. For any future observer looking at these sites, they will still see the ship, the American flag, and the bootprints which were imprinted on the lunar surface. They may know nothing about the astronauts who worked and lived on the Moon or the country which sent them there, but these future observers will be able to see in exact detail the incredible feat the humans of 1969 did, the hardware which allowed them to do it, and the condition they left it. No matter what time in the future someone might observe these sites, they will always see the same exact site, the same historical heritage.

This is the case too for probes and rovers landed on other planets. I wonder if the rovers landed on Mars will someday in the future serve as museums or landmarks, visited by the human inhabitants of Mars who are curious about mankind’s early exploration of the ‘Red planet’. It is incredibly likely that this will be the case. Will the landing craft we put on the Moon one day be landmarks to remind us of our first landing on another world? I believe so. The beauty of this is that these craft will, more than any other landmark of museum here on Earth, preserve the character of the time it came from. One glimpse can reveal the technical complexity of their hardware, more thorough study can reveal the purpose of the probe. Such observations demonstrate why and when these craft were built and sent into space, which in turn reveals the progress and development of our species.

The far future will remember little of the United States or of the 20th and 21st centuries. Eventually, the world will look and be nothing like how we know it to be today. However, the vessels we have sent into space over the last half century, and which we will continue to send into space, will exist then exactly like they do now. Eventually, they may very likely be the only thing to remember us by.

Introspection # 16: “Discoveries Yet To Be Had”

Humanity entering the 21st century recognizes its place in the universe. For centuries, we devoted our time and energy into exploring our world and charting its territories. Eventually, there were no more new horizons to explore, no more new lands to discover. Then, in the early half of the 20th century, we realized that we exist in an enormous cosmos, filled with other galaxies and populated with billions of other stars. The advent of space exploration allowed us to explore the planets of our solar system in great depth, and probe their secrets and mysteries far greater than ever before. Our science, though always evolving, is now on the verge of asking and answering questions about the deepest and most complex levels of existence. As it stands now, though, it can provide a solid understanding and explanation to how we got here.

We, the humans living in the early 21st century, possess far greater knowledge about and a thus much deeper understanding of our universe than ever before. Yet there is so much still left to be discovered. We know very little about the mysteries of our oceans, which we have hardly begun to study in truly great detail. Though we have begun the exploration of our solar system, we still have so much still to learn. Every planet and every moon still holds deep secrets, and for a number of these worlds we have not yet devoted much time and effort to a complex, complete study. Indeed, it will not be until 2015 that Pluto has been visited and explored for the first time. Our scientific understanding of the universe still has far to go, as well. Our theories are constantly shifting and changing, and as we begin to unlock the secrets of the smallest and most complex levels of our universe, we will perhaps need to drastically rethink how we view the its workings. Fields such as quantum physics are still in their early infancy, and will provide us will great insights as we further work with them.

The coming centuries will be a time of great exploration and discovery. We stand poised for the greatest exploratory undertaking that has ever occurred in humanity’s history. As our species teeters at the cusp of becoming a space-faring civilization, we will more easily and more readily devote our energy and time to studying, exploring, and trying to understand the planets and solar system. There will come a time in the next few centuries when humans will land on, explore, and colonize the planet Mars and the moons of Jupiter and Saturn. They will be able to carry out experiments and conduct research that the scientists of today can only dream about. They will produce results which provide answers that we today can only hypothesize and theorize about. Eventually, we will be sufficiently advanced enough to begin to send probe into deep space, and begin our exploration of the stars. As we build more advanced and powerful particle accelerators and have access to more complex technology, we will be able to probe the secrets of our universe more accurately and more completely. Science is a story of constant improvement. The scientists of the future, and of the far future, will have a far greater foundation of knowledge to work with than we, and will produce much deeper insights.

I wonder what great discoveries will be had in my lifetime. The 21st century will be one of far greater knowledge, and far greater exploration, than any other in humanity’s history. New technologies and the great new frontier of space beckons us to explore and discover, and I know that we will take up its calling. As we continue to investigate our world and our universe from on the Earth, and as we begin to develop and explore it from above in space, who knows what we will discover?

The JOOL Program: A Kerbal Space Program Story, Pt. 2

(Click on images to expand them)

KSP 2013-06-30 19-40-40-82

The JAMES (Jool Atmospheric Measuring Satellite) Mission

The first Kerbal mission of exploration to the gassy outer planet had been a tremendous success. The JEFF probe had completed all of its intended objectives, and had outperformed the expectations of its designers. The success of the mission convinced scientists and planners that larger, more sophisticated probes and missions could now be sent to study the planet. It also helped bring increased funds into the program, as the team behind it had demonstrated their capacity for success. This allowed for the possibility of more missions and gave the planners designing these missions more options to work with. The extra money also permitted the development and construction of new probe designs and launch vehicles.

The JEFF mission had been more of a technology demonstrator than a dedicated science mission. Though JEFF had returned a wealth of data, the scope and quality of its instruments was quite limited, and many of Jool’s secrets remained hidden. There remained an enormous amount of possible areas and things to study and observe, and the data already collected didn’t begin to touch the depths of knowledge which waited to be discovered. Scientists and astronomers studying Jool were already beginning to compete for instruments and experiment space aboard the probes. Scientists from different fields were eager to study different aspects of Jool, and thus lobbied to the mission planners for different mission objectives.  Some scientists were interested in the planet’s interior and atmosphere, as the gassy planet was unlike any other world in the Kerbal solar system. They hoped for a mission which would study the planet, its composition, and its weather in greater detail. Others were more interested in Jool’s moons, which the JEFF probe had revealed to be much more complex, unique, and full of surprises than had been expected. A number of scientists wanted to shift attention from Jool itself onto Jool’s moons, which they felt might hold even more dramatic secrets and discoveries. With the program’s future secured, planners began to seriously consider it’s timeframe and mission schedule for the first time. The needs and desires of scientists and astronomers were taken into consideration along with the technical accomplishments which needed to be achieved.

The first of these was achieving orbit around Jool. Any complete scientific study or observation would need to have long-term access to Jool, and this could only occur while in orbit.  Doing this, however, was much more challenging of a maneuver than JEFF’s flyby had been. In order to get into orbit, a probe must carry enough fuel to be able to lower its velocity around Jool and become trapped in its gravitational sphere of influence. The great distance to Jool means that much fuel has already been spent. Though probes had achieved orbit around the inner planets before, they were much closer to Kerbin than Jool and thus easier to get to. Ensuring that a probe would have enough fuel to get to and then achieve orbit around Jool was a major challenge which would need to be overcome. The alternative was aerobreaking  in Jool’s atmosphere. A probe flying through the dense atmosphere could be slowed enough to be placed into an orbit. This, however, could seriously damage the probe, and was thus unfavorable as an option. Planners also wanted to orbit and then land on one of Jool’s moons. This would be even more complex a maneuver than a simple orbit around Jool. With this in mind, it was decided that a probe designed to orbit, study, and image Jool would be sent first. The next probe would orbit and study one or multiple of Jool’s moons. A third probe would then orbit one of Jool’s moons and deploy a lander, which would land on and study the moon from the surface.

Plans for a science platform spacecraft had been in the works since early in the JOOL program, beginning shortly after the program was announced. Near the same time JEFF was flying past Jool and returning the first observations of the planet, a basic design for such a spacecraft was nearing completion. Once more money came into the program and planners decided upon the program’s mission schedule, the instruments and experiments to be carried aboard the spacecraft could be more selectively chosen. As it had been decided that the next mission to Jool would study the planet’s atmosphere, a number of specific instruments and scientific equipment designed for that purpose were installed. Complex cameras and imaging devices were also placed on the spacecraft. The complex space maneuvers needed to get into orbit around Jool required extra fuel, so  tanks were installed on the probe’s propulsion unit. Once designs were complete, the probe took a number of months to construct It was during this time that it was designated the Jool Atmospheric Measuring Satellite, or JAMES. JAMEs was installed aboard a new rocket designed specifically for the JOOL program, the Modular Attachment Transport, or MAT.KSP 2013-06-30 18-18-19-20The JAMES spacecraft. Attached to the engine on the bottom are a number of fuel tanks, used to place the craft into orbit around Jool. The upper stage above, with its four engines, allow for small maneuvers. The spacecraft’s four solar panels provide power. Along the top of the spacecraft are the numerous instruments and imagers used to study Jool. The array at the top of the craft is used to communicate with mission controllers on Kerbin.

The spacecraft was launched from Kerbal Space Center at 4 am, and went smoothly. The MAT rocket performed as expected, and placed the spacecraft into orbit 80 km above Kerbin. For 5 days and 19 hours the spacecraft stayed in orbit around Kerbin, activating and testing its instruments on the planet and its moon. The readings taken by the atmospheric instruments were compared to data collected by other satellites orbiting Kerbin, and were found to be identical. Mission controllers were convinced that JAMES was functional and ready to study Jool. The practice of activating a probes instruments in flight started with the JEFF probe, and became policy for the JOOL program. It was easier to discover a problem with a spacecraft and attempt a repair while in orbit around Kerbin than around Jool. 5 days, 19 hours, and 15 minutes into flight, the first stage reactivated and fired for 30 seconds, sending the spacecraft to Jool. It separated from the spacecraft, and the second stage burnt for another minute to place the probe into an encounter trajectory with Jool.KSP 2013-06-30 18-20-22-57JAMES blasts off from Kerbal Space Center aboard the MAT rocket  at 4 am on a mission to study the gassy outer planet of Jool.KSP 2013-06-30 18-33-48-10JAMES in orbit around Kerbin, testing its instruments and equipment.

JAMES’s launch, orbit around Kerbin, and transfer to Jool had gone perfectly, as had been the case with JEFF. The mission planners and scientists who had designed and constructed JAMES and its flight plan were incredibly proud of their continued success. However, soon into JAMES’s flight to Jool, a problem was detected. For some reason, the spacecraft was slowly losing power, even though all of its primary systems and instruments had been put into a hibernation mode for the journey. A series of preliminary checks did not reveal any technical problem with the probe, and planners began to fear the worst. It was possible that the craft had been damaged in flight by a micrometeoroid, or that the craft’s wiring and electrical equipment had been installed improperly. These possibilities would not be detected by any checks performed by planners on the spacecraft. Scientists and engineers quickly began to search for the problem and come up with a solution before the probe completely shut off.

Fortunately, the problem was quickly recognized: the solar arrays were not receiving any sunlight, and therefore not powering the spacecraft. It was determined that the probe was facing away from the Sun,  thus explaining the solar arrays’ inability to receive its rays. However, the arrays were supposed to rotate to face the Sun no matter what direction the probe was facing; for some reason, they were locked in place. In order to remedy this, mission planners decided to rotate the spacecraft to  face the Sun as it journeyed to Jool. This was an easy solution, but it was also an unwanted one: rotating the spacecraft required precious thruster fuel which mission planners had hoped to used to maneuver JAMES into different orbits around Jool.

104 days into flight, 99 days after JAMES had left Kerbin orbit, the spacecraft’s engine reactivated and burnt for 4 seconds. This brought JAMES into a closer encounter with Jool, which would help it enter an orbit around the planet more easily.  Then, 14 days later, the engine was fired again for another 13 seconds, which brought JAMES even closer to the planet. Finally, after 300 days in flight, the JAMES spacecraft entered Jool’s gravitational sphere of influence, and snapped its first images of the planet.KSP 2013-06-30 19-22-52-08JAMES captures its first images and takes its first measurements of Jool as it approaches the giant gassy planet.

As JAMES approached the planet, it began taking readings and measurements with its suite of instruments. When it reached its closest point to Jool, 5481 km above the planet’s top cloud layer, the probe’s engine activated and burnt for 2 minutes, slightly longer than was expected. This placed JAMES into a slightly elliptical orbit, with its farthest point from Jool almost crossing the orbit of Laythe, the innermost moon. The stage carrying JAMES’s extra fuel and engine then decoupled from the spacecraft, having been completely spent.KSP 2013-06-30 19-26-35-51JAMES’s engine fires as the spacecraft flies past Jool, placing the probe into a slightly elliptical orbit around the planet.KSP 2013-06-30 19-28-43-09JAMES’s orbit around Jool, which almost intersected the orbit of Laythe, Jool’s innermost moon.

Now in orbit, JAMES began a more intensive study of the planet and its atmosphere. The data sent back to scientists and astronomers on Kerbin was incredible valuable, and helped them vastly expand and refine their understanding of Jool. The probe studied the “Great Wisp”, a weather event on Jool which was visible from space. JAMES revealed this to be a massive storm, and continued to observe and measure the storm for the remainder of its mission.KSP 2013-06-30 19-32-14-46JAMES studies Jool’s “Great Wisp”, a major storm brewing on the top of the planet’s cloud system.

In addition to JAMES’s study of Jool, an effort was made to study and image the planet’s moons. JEFF had discovered that Laythe, the innermost moon of Jool, had a substantial atmosphere, and JAMES’s instruments were perfectly suited for the measurement and study of that atmosphere. JAMES’s close orbit with Laythe routinely brought it near the moon, and scientists made most of these encounters by focusing JAMES’s attention on it. It was discovered that Laythe’s atmosphere ends 52 km above the moon and is slightly less dense than Kerbin’s. The temperature on Laythe was found to be less than 0 degrees Celsius, so it was reasoned that the bodies of liquid on the moon must be comprised of something other than water. Attention was also given to Jool’s other moons, though JAMES’s distance from them meant that a more complete study and photography of them was impossible.KSP 2013-06-30 19-32-31-71While in orbit around Jool, JAMES studies Laythe during its closest encounter with the moon.     KSP 2013-06-30 19-29-59-41Jool’s more distant moons, Vall and Tylo, are imaged by JAMES. Vall, which had not been extensively studied or imaged by JEFF, was determined to be a large, icy world.

JAMES remained in orbit around Jool for a number of months, continuing to produce new data and discoveries for astronomers and scientists. Curiously, the spacecraft started sending back status reports which indicated that its orbit around Jool was degrading. Mission planners calculated that JAMES was being pulled out of orbit around Jool by Laythe every time the probe had a close encounter with the moon. They realized that the probe would soon escape Jool orbit, be captured by Laythe, and flung around the moon. There was much concern that JAMES might either smash into the moon or be sent flying into interplanetary space. Some planners wanted to use the last of JAMES’s fuel, which was storied within the spacecraft, to restore orbit around Jool. However, some astrophysicists, having spent days calculating possible trajectories and orbits for JAMES, realized that it could easily be placed into a stable orbit around Laythe as it was being flung past the moon. Once in orbit around Laythe, JAMES could study the moon in greater detail, while still taking observations and measurements of Jool. This option was lobbied for by some mission planners, who felt that placing JAMES into a stable orbit around Laythe permitted the continued study of Jool, and by the scientists who had hoped for a dedicated mission to study Jool’s moons. After much debate, it was decided that this option would be chosen.KSP 2013-06-30 19-36-36-38A view of JAMES’s orbit around Jool being altered by an encounter with Laythe.

As JAMES was flung around Laythe, its four small booster engines ignited and burnt for 45 seconds, expending all of the probe’s remaining fuel. Fortunately, this burn put JAMES into a stable orbit 140 km above Laythe’s surface. The spacecraft’s proximity to the moon allowed it to conduct much more detailed studies of its atmospheric composition, its surface, and its interior, and JAMES returned a wealth of information on Laythe to Kerbin.  Meanwhile, as mission planners had hoped, the probe’s study of Jool continued unaffected. The further distance from Jool proved to be a benefit for the study of the planet, because JAMES was able to more accurately and completely measure Jool’s magnetosphere.KSP 2013-06-30 19-40-26-55JAMES in orbit around Laythe.KSP 2013-06-30 19-40-47-02JAMES snaps a picture of Laythe and Jool  together in the same frame. This image would later be considered one of the most iconic and moving of t hose taken during the JOOL program.

The JAMES mission had, like JEFF, been an enormous success. Despite technical problems early in the mission, the probe managed to perform beyond all expectations, and returned a huge amount of highly valuable information and data on Jool and its moons. The mission initially intended to orbit Jool but, in a twist of fate and luck, the JAMES probe was able to also be placed into orbit around one of Jool’s moons, Laythe. This feat helped mission planners and scientists design the later JOOL program missions, which they wanted to have orbit Jool’s moons as well. The success of the JAMES probe, and the continued success of the JOOL program, made it one of the most popular and accomplished programs of space exploration the Kerbals had ever developed. Mission planners now turned their eyes and efforts to the more complex, more challenging, and more promising missions to Jool which were yet to be sent.

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