IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Cosmic Log: Aug. 13-19, 2005

Science editor Alan Boyle's Weblog: Red tape and rockets ... Next shuttle launch in March? ... Russia's shuttle reloaded ... Spaceship schedules shift ... Watching a cosmic close call ... Asteroid probe spots target ... Views from above ... and more.

Aug. 17, 2005 | Red tape and rockets: Cape Rich hasn't yet turned into Canada's Cape Canaveral, but the entrepreneurs behind PlanetSpace say it's only a matter of time, engineering and paperwork.

Canadian Arrow team leader Geoff Sheerin, one of the partners in PlanetSpace, announced back in June that Cape Rich in Ontario had been selected as the launch test site for the Arrow suborbital rocket, and that tests of the rocket's escape tower system could begin in late August.

This week, Sheerin and his PlanetSpace partner, Indian-American millionaire Chirinjeev Kathuria, said their plans were progressing, although the schedule for the test launches might have to slip into autumn. "The September-October time period is really the window that we'll end up likely getting," Sheerin told me.

Right now, the most pressing item is the environmental study for the test range, which is primarily under the control of the Canadian Forces' Meaford training center. PlanetSpace must also coordinate the test activities with other local authories, and gain a permit from Transport Canada's Launch Safety Office.

"It's not the technology that's going to hold us up. It'll be the bureaucracy," Sheerin said.

Sheerin said his team has been fine-tuning the Canadian Arrow hardware for the test flights, including a set of lattice fins for the launch escape system — an idea borrowed from Russia's Soyuz spacecraft design.

On the business side, Kathuria has been working on arrangements that he hopes will smooth the way for taking on suborbital space passengers sometime in 2007. "After the first unmanned launch, in 11 months, we want to start taking bookings," he said.

Will PlanetSpace get off the ground? You'll have to stay tuned for the answer to that one, but Kathuria says pioneers in the space tourism field could be in for a rich financial prize. "This is one of the rare businesses where the demand exceeds the supply," he observed.

Aug. 17, 2005 | Next shuttle launch in March? Because of the repercussions of the shuttle Discovery's fuel tank problems, NASA is adjusting its plans for the next launch to come in March or later, according to reports gleaned by NBC News space analyst James Oberg. What's more, the next shuttle mission might not involve the shuttle Atlantis, as previously planned, but another turn for Discovery instead.

For the full update on the situation, check out the full story, part of our "Return to Flight" special report.

The schedules are being revised to give NASA workers as well as shuttle contractors a more realistic idea of what needs to be done by when. As associate administrator Bill Gerstenmaier said last week, the previous schedule, which called for an Atlantis launch in September, is virtually impossible to meet. There had been talk of a November opportunity, but NASA is apparently leaning toward passing up that launch window as well.

The modified schedules appear to have Discovery rather than Atlantis taking on the next scheduled test mission to the international space station, known as STS-121. Thanks to the beefed-up resupply operation during the just-concluded Discovery mission, "the space station has been restored to excellent shape with 'full pantries,' and people in that program appear confident they will have no trouble continuing the two-person 'skeleton crew' operations," Oberg reported in an e-mail.

Oberg said the March-or-later scenario is based on "hints about what's still wrong with the external fuel tank's insulation, and on the simple logistics of shipping tanks back and forth between Cape Canaveral and the Michoud facility in Louisiana where they are built and serviced."

NASA is due to update journalists on the future shuttle schedule on Thursday.

Meanwhile, snags are continuing to hold up Discovery's expected piggyback flight from its California landing site to Kennedy Space Center in Florida. After thunderstorms forced one delay on Monday, another delay arose when workers had a hard time aligning the shuttle's protective tail cone during its installation, NASA reported today.

The shuttle has to be mounted atop a modified 747 jet for the scheduled two-day journey to Florida, with refueling stops at military bases along the way. Departure from Edwards Air Force Base is now scheduled for no earlier than Friday.

Aug. 17, 2005 | Out of the office: I'm heading out to Iowa again on Thursday for my niece's wedding, so as usual in such circumstances, postings will be dependent on time, news and bandwidth. I'll be back in the office on Monday.

Aug. 17, 2005 | Wonder and whimsy on the World Wide Web:
Nature: Lion attacks are on the rise
Slate: How evolutionary psychology gets evolution wrongTheForce.Net: Lightsaber lameness (via Transterrestrial Musings)• The Onion: Gravity refuted with 'intelligent falling' theory

Aug. 16, 2005 | Russia’s shuttle reloaded: Russian space executives are once again putting their next-generation spaceship concept on display — and fleshing out some of the details for turning the idea into reality.

There's a flurry of reports about the Kliper ("Clipper") in the Russian news media, timed to coincide with the MAKS-5000 aerospace show in Zhukovsky, near Moscow. A full-scale Kliper mock-up is on display there, as it was at the Paris Air Show earlier this year.

This time around, executives at Russia's Energia rocket company are being quoted as saying the reusable craft, which looks somewhat like a squashed shuttle, could be ready for remote-controlled testing by 2011, with piloted flights beginning in 2012. They're also hinting that the European Space Agency would be brought into the deal to design the cockpit.

The new Russian reusable spacecraft Klip
The new Russian reusable spacecraft Kliper is displayed at the MAKS-2005 International air and space show in the town of Zhukovsky, some 50 kms from Moscow, 16 August 2005. AFP PHOTO / MLADEN ANTONOV (Photo credit should read MLADEN ANTONOV/AFP/Getty Images)Mladen Antonov / AFP

The Kliper would carry a pilot and co-pilot, along with four passengers — doubling the capacity of Russia's current space workhorse, the Soyuz spacecraft, and potentially halving the cost of a passenger ticket (which is currently priced at $20 million). The Russians say the Kliper could be just what the international space station needs to bring its capacity up from the current three-person limit to the six people it was designed to accommodate upon completion.

Of course, by that time, NASA's shuttle fleet will be retired, and the American space effort will be looking beyond the space station to the moon, Mars and beyond. At least that's NASA's current plan. So does that mean the space station will become a dead-end destination? Probably not. In fact, the international space station might well come into its prime as a destination resort for well-heeled passengers riding Klipers and perhaps "SpaceShipFour" rocket planes into orbit.

HobbySpace's Clark Lindsey notes that adding an inflatable habitat module could turn the station into a with an orbital path that's ideal for jaw-dropping views of Earth's glories:

"No, this is not trivializing anything. It's OK to go to space for sightseeing just as it is OK to go to the Grand Canyon, Niagara Falls, Yosemite, the Great Wall, Tahiti, Antarctica, the Amazon, etc. just to see beautiful and amazing sights. In the process sightseers create profitable businesses with lots of employment. I don't see a problem with that."

And like NASA's yet-to-be-designed Crew Exploration Vehicle, Russia's Kliper is said to be suitable for trips beyond Earth orbit as well, perhaps including those future round-the-moon excursions.

The big question mark would be cost: The Russians have plenty of marvelous outer-space plans, ranging from the free-flying Mini-Station 1 to a full-scale mission to Mars. However, they haven't yet had much luck finding the funding to pay for those grand ideas. Executives have said the proceeds from the Soyuz-based round-the-moon journeys would go toward building the next-generation Kliper, but it's not yet clear when the circumlunar tours will get off the ground.

Kliper's future could well come down to how much money the Europeans are willing to kick in toward the estimated $2 billion to $3 billion development cost. The European Space Agency is already providing a new series of robotic cargo craft for the space station, with the first automated transfer vehicle, dubbed Jules Verne, slated for launch next year. Europe may well end up with a surprisingly key role in resupplying the space station as well as funding passenger traffic into Earth orbit.

Aug. 16, 2005 | Spaceship schedules shift: NASA has postponed the start of the space shuttle Discovery's piggyback ride from its California landing site back to Florida by at least a day, due to weather.

"The delay is primarily due to a thunderstorm that drenched this portion of Edwards Air Force Base Monday evening, forcing technicians to temporarily suspend work on preparing the Discovery for its ferry flight aboard NASA's modified 747 Shuttle Carrier Aircraft," the space agency reported.

Alan Brown, a spokesman at NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards, said the current plan is for Discovery to be mounted atop the 747 jet on Wednesday, with takeoff coming early Thursday to begin a "somewhat serpentine" flight back to Kennedy Space Center. The trip is projected to take two days, with three refueling stops at military bases, Brown said.

The current route calls for the shuttle-carrying jet to fly cross-country over Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi and points east on the way back. The precise itinerary and refueling schedule depends on the weight of the shuttle — including how much moisture Discovery's thermal blankets soaked up from the storm, Brown said.

There's also been a delay in yet another spaceship's schedule: The historic SpaceShipOne rocket plane, which the National Air and Space Museum currently has in storage, is now due to be installed in the downtown Washington museum's Milestones of Flight gallery during the first week of October, spokesman Peter Golkin said. That's a change from the previous plan, which had targeted the ceremony for the last week of September.

Aug. 16, 2005 | Watching a cosmic close call: When the asteroid Apophis (formerly known as 2004 MN4) narrowly misses us in 2029, scientists will be watching with bated breath to see how its orbit will be affected by Earth's gravity field.

Right now, astronomers can't quite completely exclude the possibility that precisely the right kind of tug could put Apophis on a "through-the-keyhole" course to collide with Earth during one of the encounters to follow.

In a paper accepted for publication in the journal Icarus, an international research team suggests placing instruments on the space rock in advance of the 2029 event, so that readings made during the encounter could indicate what Apophis is made of. They also suggest paying close attention to the wobbles in the asteroid's axis as it passes by.

"Monitoring of this event telescopically and with devices placed on the asteroid's surface could reveal the nature of its interior, and provide us insight into how to deal with it should it ever threaten collision," the University of Michigan's Daniel Scheeres said in a news release issued today.

Don't hit the panic button yet: Currently, scientists rate the risk of collision during encounters in the 2035-2037 time frame at 1 in 6,250, and that risk is likely to go down as astronomers learn more about Apophis' orbit.

Aug. 16, 2005 | Your daily dose of science on the World Wide Web:
N.Y. Times (reg. req.): Building a virtual microbe, gene by gene First Inca word Whew! Your DNA is not your destinyPopular Science: The future of the body

Aug. 15, 2005 | Asteroid probe spots its target: Japan's Hayabusa spacecraft, formerly known as MUSES-C, is now hot on the trail of the asteroid it's planning to assault later this year.

Today the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, or JAXA, released a series of star-tracker images showing asteroid Itokawa's movement against the background sky. The navigational readings will help guide Hayabusa to a mid-September standoff position, about 12 miles (20 kilometers) from the quarter-mile-wide (500-meter-wide) asteroid.

After a few weeks of study, Hayabusa will approach the rock for a "smash-and-grab" encounter. If the operation is successful, the probe will fire a "bullet" into Itokawa's surface from inches away, collect tiny flecks of the debris thrown up by that impact, then bring the sample back to Earth in 2007 for analysis.

NASA is cooperating with JAXA on the Hayabusa mission, which NASA asteroid researcher Donald Yeomans says represents "the next giant step forward in understanding the role of near-Earth asteroids in the origin of the solar system, their potential threat to Earth, and the future use of their raw materials to expand the human presence beyond Earth."

In his description of the mission, Yeomans expands upon that last point:

"Some of the near-Earth asteroids that are potentially the most hazardous because they can closely approach the Earth are also the objects that could be most easily reached and exploited for raw materials," Yeomans explains. "The minerals, metals and water ices on near-Earth asteroids and comets could be used to manufacture the space structures and rocket fuel that will be required to explore and colonize our solar system in the 21st century. We need to examine the chemical composition of some of these objects to understand which among them are richest in mineral wealth and other raw materials."

To learn more about asteroids, check out our "Below the Belt" interactive tutorial as well as JAXA's Hayabusa home page, and NASA's Near Earth Object Program and Asteroid and Comet Impact Hazards Web sites.

Aug. 15, 2005 | Views from above: Africa used to be known as the "Dark Continent," but over the next month, the National Geographic Society is turning a bright spotlight on the continent: The September issue of National Geographic magazine will be fully devoted to Africa and its peoples, and its Web site is highlighting an ambitious eight-month project to document the land from above, known as the Megaflyover.

The society is planning to provide a 24/7 "Wildcam" video feed from Botswana's Mashatu Game Reserve, and a series of Africa-themed events are scheduled for the coming weeks.

"In Africa, human aspirations collide with the natural environment like nowhere else on the planet," the magazine's editor-in-chief, Chris Johns, said in a news release. He voiced the hope that "the way in which Africa solves its problems can serve as a model for the rest of the world."

The aerial photography alone makes the exercise worth it: For example, the dispatches from last December include intriguingly geometric pictures of a village in Mali and a salt pan in Niger. Check out National Geographic's Megaflyover feature for more images and videos.

There's nothing like getting a view from above to give you a wider perspective on earthly concerns, as Discovery mission commander Eileen Collins observed this month. "Sometimes you can see how there is erosion, and you can see how there is deforestation," she told reporters from orbit.

NASA's Earth Observatory Web site provides plenty of examples of that wider perspective, in Africa and elsewhere. Today, the site is focusing on Alaska's forest fires and the dwindling Aral Sea in Central Asia.

Satellites also bear witness to human tragedies, such as Sunday's crash of a Cypriot airliner in Greece.  From Brasilia, Cosmic Log correspondent Geovani Balbino wrote: "I spent Sunday waiting for the release of the satellite Aqua picture set, in order to see whether the heat signature of that horrendous plane crash in Greece would be detected by its infrared sensor."

Indeed, he spotted the crash site in a picture taken less than three hours after the plane went down, north of Athens, in the lower midsection of the frame. "The smoke is clearly seen," Balbino wrote.

Check out our "Earth as Art" multimedia slide show for further perspectives from above.

Aug. 15, 2005 | Circle of life: Thanks for your messages and prayers in the wake of my mother's passing last week. I'm back in the office for now, but late this week I'll be out again for a far happier occasion: my niece's wedding.

Aug. 15, 2005 | Scientific smorgasbord on the World Wide Web:
Science News: Cosmic computing
BBC: Tsunami clue to Atlantis foundBusiness Week: Billionaires blasting offThe Wall Street Journal: Requiem for the future

Looking for older items? Check the . Share your perspective on cosmic subjects with . If you link to this page, you can use or as the address. MSNBC is not responsible for the content of Internet links.