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April 29, 2010

Geek Out!: Dreaming of interplanetary water stations

Posted: 05:32 PM ET
Fueling stations?
Fueling stations?

Editor's note: Geek Out! posts feature the latest and most interesting in nerd-culture news. From scifi and fantasy to gadgets and science, if you can geek out over it you can find it on Geek Out! Look for Geek Out! posts on CNN's SciTech blog.

"This research indicates that not only could asteroids be possible sources of raw materials, but they could be the fueling stations and watering holes for future interplanetary exploration."

That's Don Yeomans, the manager of NASA's Near-Earth Object Program Office at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, talking about this morning's news in Nature that signs of water ice and organic compounds have been discovered on an asteroid. See Yeomans' full comments.

This is big news for the scientific community. Previously, scientists believed that asteroids within a certain distance of the sun are too close to the energy of our home star to maintain any water ice. That the asteroid 24 Themis, a mere 297 million miles from the sun, boasts the infrared signatures of both organic compounds and water ice lends credibility to theories that say that Earth's water and other organic compounds were delivered to the planet after its initial geological formation.

But what about the space exploration communities? The other parts of NASA, the people concerned with human spaceflight, don't seem to be reacting to 24 Themis' water news. As Yeomans indicates, the discovery of water ice on a near-Earth object could open up some possibilities for human exploration of the solar system. So why the relative silence?

Maybe it's because lately, it doesn't seem like the United States will ever get to a point where interplanetary exploration is a reality. Right now, the space shuttle is set to retire at the end of 2010 with Endeavour's last mission. President Obama's budget, which allocates more money to NASA for the types of research that could reveal other asteroids and near-Earth objects with watering hole capabilities, scraps the still-in-progress Constellation program. Constellation was supposed to be the shuttle's successor: a reusable, modular heavy-lift rocket and crew vehicle that would put the moon and probably Mars back within the reach of U.S. astronauts.

The loss of both the shuttle and Constellation puts the United States astronaut corps completely at the mercy of Russian and other international space agencies. Put another way: The U.S. won't be able to put a person on orbit, on the international space station or otherwise, without paying a significant cost.

Which means that assuming all remaining shuttle flights launch as planned, by 2011, for the first time in 49 years, the United States will no longer be the No. 1 country capable of manned space flight. Instead, we'll cede orbital supremacy to Russia, Japan, China - all countries that either have capabilities at the moment or are on track to have them in the foreseeable future. And we will literally pay them for the privilege of being second-best.

To be fair, Obama's NASA budget allocates funds to the development of private spacecraft for human flight. There's a chance that the United States won't give up that No. 1 slot. But there's also a good deal of skepticism as to whether the private sector will be able to develop the crafts needed to restore U.S. manned spaceflight capability in a timely fashion. As David Waters, reporter for SpaceflightNow.com and former public affairs officer for United Space Alliance, points out, "NASA may have set the ball in motion for commercial companies to start flying astronauts, but let's not lose sight of the fact that we're years away from that happening."

Apollo astronauts Neil Armstrong (Apollo 11), Jim Lovell (Apollo 13) and Gene Cernan (Apollo 17) have all also expressed their thoughts about scrapping Constellation, saying that the U.S.' loss of the ability to get to low-Earth orbit is going to cost this country a lot more than the $50 million to $60 million per seat on a Russian Soyuz. It's also going to cost knowledge, training and experience that space personnel, both NASA and private-sector, gain as machinery is developed and built and as astronauts train and fly.

It's also probably going to cost human space exploration public favor and attention. It's no secret that the general public pays far less attention to spaceflight than it did during Apollo's heyday in the '60s and '70s. So what will happen if the U.S. doesn't launch a person for 10, 20, 30 years? How long will it take before the American public regains its enthusiasm for the costly, risky challenge that is spacefaring? How many potential young scientists, engineers, pilots, astronauts and space geeks will turn their attentions and energies elsewhere without NASA flying?

Someone somewhere is imagining the day that a craft emblazoned with the familiar NASA logo reaches orbit around an asteroid, refills its water tanks and continues on through the solar system. The knowledge humanity would gain from such a flight is the stuff of dreams. But right now, such a day exists only in science fiction. While the data gleaned from 24 Themis will probably continue to inform theories of the Earth's origin and formation, with Obama's new budget and NASA's new plans for the future, it seems unlikely that NASA spacecraft will ever use Yeomans' asteroid pit stops.

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patelh6141   April 29th, 2010 5:56 pm ET

This article seems to be too political.... Obama is a term president???


Nastydaddy   April 29th, 2010 5:57 pm ET

The US is going broke, Obama doesnt care about the country or anythything else for that matter, and the world will end in 2012.


BigFatFan   April 29th, 2010 5:59 pm ET

"Geek Out" ?? is that the best name that CNN could come up with for this blog? believe it or not, "Geek" is not considered a complimentary term for scientific/engineering-minded people. the use of the term in this blog continues to support the existing stereotype that science-minded people are wierd. I strongly suggest that CNN find another name for this blog. its name is offensive.


txkboy   April 29th, 2010 5:59 pm ET

Put the space station to the test and send it to an orbit between the Earth and Mars. See if our money really paid off. Have the crew rehab there and the shuttle/spacecraft resupply using the station. Makes too much sense, that's why it will never happen.


Franko   April 29th, 2010 6:10 pm ET

Robert Zubrin, the Mars advocate, has insights - listen to the mp3;
[audio src="http://archive.thespaceshow.com/shows/1352-BWB-2010-04-27.mp3" /]


Jessica   April 29th, 2010 6:24 pm ET

"public pays far less attention to spaceflight than it did during Apollo's heyday" Really?? – They tuned out after Apollo 11 not 17.


patrioteagleflag   April 29th, 2010 6:42 pm ET

The constellation program was doomed from the start. Back in '97 we had a shuttle replacement program going, it was canceled by GWB. and replaced 6 years later with the much laughed at(by engineers and scientists) constellation program. We have known for YEARS the shuttle was going away, but we did nothing, Now we see the first real increase in funding for NASA in 15 years and the cancellation of a project that was going nowhere slowly. Sorry folks but this like a lot of other problems was caused by the PREVIOUS INCOMPETENT ADMINISTRATION. I'm truly sorry about what has happened to the once proud space program, but it's downfall was years in the making. We have TWO wars we have to pay for, plus a massive tax cut for the ultra rich(that accounts for 74% of the budget shortfall by the way)

How many Billions have we wasted offending our allies and promoting Irans place in the middle east, while our own infrastructure falls apart and our industry is fast paced exported to countries with missiles pointed at us? Sorry, but we can't have a manned space program AND look for WMD's in Iraq. The middle class can have a few dollars back (while the billionaires make out with the lions share of the tax cut) sorry if the states lose out, let them go bankrupt or raise taxes(but not for the wealthy)


BigFatFan   April 29th, 2010 6:55 pm ET

what ever happened to Bush Jr's plan to send men to Mars? is that still a viable program?


Larry   April 29th, 2010 7:29 pm ET

Honestly I think its time for private industry to take over providing the
vehicles for manned space flight. The research was done years ago,
rocket science is no longer new, its old enough to collect social security!

Most of our space launch capacity is privately produced. The shuttle failed to live up to its promise, and industry took over building an array of launch
options.


dt   April 29th, 2010 7:57 pm ET

We just confirmed that the moon has water. That is a little easier to get to, and at least has partial gravity, so that our astronauts can actually stand on it. Seems to be a much closer analog for Mars training than an asteroid, and a heck of a lot easier to learn what works and what doesn't.


Patrick   April 29th, 2010 8:29 pm ET

The job of heavy lifting should have gone to private industry years ago. The Space Shuttle was a giant sponge soaking up all the money that should have been available for other more valuable space projects. It should be noted that the shuttle was designed in the 70's and was supposed to cost $5 MILLION per flight. In realitiy it cost $500 MILLION, ONE HUNDRED TIMES what it was supposed to cost. We talk about military boondoggles but the shuttle truly takes the cake. Maybe if private industry had actually had to COMPETE against each other, rather than for slices of the same tax dollar pie, they might have been able to develop a disposable launch vehicle at a reasonable cost per pound to orbit. Long overdue.


vin   April 29th, 2010 8:52 pm ET

I think this is awesome.... for those people who think the world will end in 2012, I hope you feel real dumb when your still alive. More water the better because we are losing water quick and finding more water sources are better.... like you can do any better, give the gov't a break...


azezel   April 29th, 2010 8:58 pm ET

Hate to say it but it will take a strong commander in chief to sound the charge to the stars. Some one that understands how to build a physical economy to develop the mindset and ability to reach the stars. It is not a matter of tax dollars but the way they are spent. The conditions on which the credit is granted. We can do the same things for 1/10th the cost but we would have to get rid of the county property tax for residences to do it without causing another even larger problem of displacing tenants.


R2K   April 29th, 2010 9:02 pm ET

"Put the space station to the test and send it to an orbit between the Earth and Mars. See if our money really paid off. Have the crew rehab there and the shuttle/spacecraft resupply using the station. Makes too much sense, that's why it will never happen."

It makes zero sense, that is why it will never happen.

The space station is not made to operate in deep space, would require millions of pounds of rocket fuel to get into your proposed orbit, does not have radiation shielding sufficient to protect a crew outside of LEO, needs resupply missions every few months, cant hold any fuel to give to the mars craft. I wont even get into why it is a bad idea to coast half way to mars, slow down, link up with a station in a different orbit (not a Mars free return orbit), and then burn rocket engines again.

NASA may squander money and come up with some pretty lame plans (the ISS for example), but damn you are way off base.

-R2K

PS:

""Geek Out" ?? is that the best name that CNN could come up with for this blog? believe it or not, "Geek" is not considered a complimentary term for scientific/engineering-minded people. the use of the term in this blog continues to support the existing stereotype that science-minded people are wierd. I strongly suggest that CNN find another name for this blog. its name is offensive."

That post was worth repeating, even if the guy who said it is named "BigFatFan"


Eric J   April 29th, 2010 9:09 pm ET

does CNN have any professional news reporters anymore, it all seems like college students submitting their homework for stories


axel000   April 29th, 2010 9:11 pm ET

This article is woefully misinformed and partisan. Consellation never received a dollar of funding since Bush announced it, therefore features were cut cut cut and the program fell years behind schedule, Obama cancelled it at the behest of the recent review of the blue ribbon panel that was set up to review future space direction.

Odd this article makes no mention of the $6 billion increase in funding this year Obama proposes to research cutting edge rocket propulsion. NASA is already talking about a 3-4 month trip to Mars instead of a 2 year round trip. They know 2 years is too much radiation exposure so they knew they needed faster propulsion methods.

Beyond that though, Aries (the capsule) is still launching, you are a few months behind the news. Its going to ISS as a lifeboat, launched by a Delta rocket I believe. Work is also ongoing on a NASA heavy lift rocket, with the private firms picking up the ISS servicing mission.

Misinfomred, out of date, misleading. Ah yes, this is CNN. Silly me.


SLAVER76   April 29th, 2010 9:53 pm ET

Sorry but patrioteagleflag couldn't be more wrong on just about everything he/she writes. Constellation did not come 6 years after something Bush could not have cancelled in '97 by the former and only President with a MBA–by the by Constellation was announced in 2005, which is 8 years. During the 90s the term dark days was synonomous with NASA's humans spaceflight program. And oh by the way, I'm at best middle class, and the tax cuts that the current President is not planning to renew. The fact is we as a Nation need to decide if humans spaceflight is something we should continue to pursue and then make the decision to move forward with it immediately. It would be nice if someone in office, Executive or Legislative, could not politicize everything that is good and pure.


John E.   April 29th, 2010 10:27 pm ET

Listen Folks Back in the 1960's to early 1970's We sent men to the moon As well as fight no good war with Vietnam and South east Asia How many dollars to that costs us? How many lives were lost We also Fighting a cold war with the Former Soviet Union This Cold war went from 1946 until 1989 – 1990 We placed Sky lab in space after it flew to the earth somewhere near Austrial America has many agenda in it;s book . If we take men to moon and back We can fly to MARS by 2019 . Even before 2024 or 2025. Maybe if China does go to moon say like 2012 or 2014 This US government will think again More & more discoveries are being made finding that the craters and the Polor caps of our moon Does have potential . Think again US government Our priorities will be strengthen Health insurance and Health care is going to be strengthen soon W hy not our Space program By the way The Space shuttle program has out lived it's time President Ronald Reagan was going to Write t his Program off Until NASA spoke up against this. Plus the Famous Challeger Disaster.


tjohn6041   April 29th, 2010 11:45 pm ET

@axel0000
Uh, I am not sure where you got your sources but recheck them. Constellation has been receiving fund until Obama came along. And the rocket propulsion that Obama wants to research has been researched before as project Prometheus, which was cancelled because it is high power-low output and VERY costly. And the Mars mission is about as real as the tooth fairy. He has no intention of sending humans to Mars, you are the on behind the news. He originally had no plans for human spaceflight after Constellation, he is just promising this to appeal to the uneducated people. Funding for the launch abort system illegally ends on April 30, yet Obama claims Orion will not be scrapped (maybe he wants to make the astronauts they have no possibility of survival in a launch failure). There are no plans to make the Atlas man-rated. There is no current heavy lift option- do not be fooled buy the DirectX, it is a very old idea that was shoot down years ago because it costs almost as much as a shuttle and is not reusable. Constellation will be cheaper, safer, and more efficient than the president's space plans (or lack there of).
Do not be fooled by his claims about making Low-Earth-Orbit (LEO) accessible to civilians. The Obamaspace plan may get Americans to Mars, but it will be as passengers on a Russian Kliper or Indian AVATAR. The US will never leave LEO under Obama's plan. His plan, quoting Neil deGrasse Tyson his plan is "to boldly go where hundreds have gone before". Thankfully, most people are opposed to ceding our lead in space technology to Russia. Additionally, Congress has not supported Obama on his plans because they fail to mention hardware, disregard safety, and through money to irresponsible private companies (ok, there was one representative from California that supported him).


jay   April 29th, 2010 11:55 pm ET

Obama is sacking the space program for two reasons: 1. in retaliation for having no black astronauts in the early years, a charge on which NASA is obviously guilty. 2. it is a creative enterprise of the human mind, the most alien concept imaginable to a corporate statist politician whose all-consuming passion is finding new ways to regulate and tax Americans to benefit his corporate buddies.


Franko   April 30th, 2010 1:06 am ET

A unit of confusion is the slug (slug = 14.5939 kg)

""The Shuttle and US segments of the ISS were built using the English system of measurements," says NASA spokesman Grey Hautaluoma. "And much of the Ares launch vehicle ..... In June 2006, when NASA's progress on that looked sluggish"

John Holden, Obama's science czar, is lifeboat ethics Malthusian.
Sustainable no progress, stop the climate, cull the bewildered masses.


Political Space Nut   April 30th, 2010 1:20 am ET

I gotta agree with axel000 here. Woefully misinformed article. In addition to the fact that the Orion capsule from Constellation is indeed still being preserved as a return craft for Space Station Crews, and the $6 billion in seed funding for commercial orbital transportation services, the post fails to mention that even before the discovery of water on Themis Obama had already set a goal of landing astronauts on AN ASTEROID within 15 years, a feat that is much more daunting than even landing back on the moon. Another major error in the post? The last time the U.S. was no longer #1 in human spaceflight was 49 years ago?? Um, sorry, Sophia (CNN designer who posted this) but you forgot the roughly 6 year hiatus in between the last Apollo/Skylab/Soyuz missions of the mid 1970s and 1981, when the first shuttle flew. During those years, the U.S. not only did NOT have the capacity to put human beings into space, but we didn't even have the relationship to the then-Soviets to pay them for a ride up. So this current hiatus is not as dramatic and unprecedented as the poster (and some former astronauts, most notably Harrison Schmidt) have made it out to be.


SpaceFan   April 30th, 2010 2:37 am ET

April 29th, 2010 5:59 pm ET

Put the space station to the test and send it to an orbit between the Earth and Mars. See if our money really paid off. Have the crew rehab there and the shuttle/spacecraft resupply using the station. Makes too much sense, that's why it will never happen.

Awesome idea. Use that space station infrastructure, and push it toward mars. It could hold an enormous amount of supplies, is self sustaining to a degree, and is already built. It's orbited earth a billion times, now lets send it to Mars, and continue research there.


Joe   April 30th, 2010 2:44 am ET

Imagine if we used the trillions on the space program, instead of rebuilding Iraq. The peacefulness of space, and science far outweigh all the nastiness of war.


Fred   April 30th, 2010 2:47 am ET

I would like to mention a few things.

While "geek" is considered non-complimentary by some, by others it (along with "nerd") is considered a label worth embracing. So the name of this column is greatly appreciated by many in its intended audience.

Although perceived bias of the author can be argued, I gather that its presence is not entirely inappropriate for a blog such as this one. Furthermore, she does give voice to legitimate concerns expressed by many who are following these developments ... both in the space advocacy community at large and in affected regions of the country (such as the Space Coast of Florida, near where I live). While many people in these communities support the increasing involvement of private companies in spaceflight, many of us agree that they are not yet ready to take over the task of transporting humans to orbit. I would like to see them successfully launch a few missions before having them take over these tasks.

An appreciable number of people in this region fear an economic slump much like that which took place in the interim between the end of Apollo and the beginning of the Space Shuttle program. Especially given economic conditions in this region in particular and the country as a whole, this prospect is feared.

Many of the critics of Constellation did have legitimate arguments and concerns for its future. But there may be a way to recover at least a portion of the future done on it. I would like to suggest that others following these comments consider investigating the work of the rocket scientists and engineers who form the DIRECT team. Visit their Web site at

http://directlauncher.com

Their proposed Shuttle-derived vehicles would make better use of Shuttle hardware and infrastructure. It would also continue to draw upon the expertise of the workforce gained in the decades of the Shuttle's operations. In addition, it would allow NewSpace companies the time to mature so that they can eventually take over the job of transporting humans to orbit ... when they are ready (and not before). Combining their plans with a brief delay in the retirement of the Space Shuttle, we may find that we may be able to eliminate any gap in United States access to space.


Fred   April 30th, 2010 3:00 am ET

SpaceFan has suggested re-tasking the International Space Station, sending it on an orbit toward Mars. While this idea sounds reasonable in principle, I wonder about the difficulties its implementation would pose. Still, there are always possibilities ... perhaps it would be something to consider instead of de-orbiting the station at the end of its lifetime. However, I think that one should definitely consult with those better acquainted with spacecraft design and orbital mechanics to determine whether such a plan is, indeed, feasible. Would there be any benefit to this proposed use of the station over the use of dedicated spacecraft designed just for this purpose? That would be a question that these experts could help us answer.


Franko   April 30th, 2010 3:42 am ET

When there is an economic slump, manufacture a scare, a false flag event.
Martians are taking over Wall Street, and the economy will collapse.

War of the Worlds would increase industrial production and banker bonuses.


Ash   April 30th, 2010 12:11 pm ET

@ Big Fat Fan:

Good Lord could you whine anymore dude? "waaaaah someone said geek so instead of doing nothing, I sit and whine on blogs about how the scientific community views us!!"

Feel free to stfu at any time


Franko   April 30th, 2010 10:50 pm ET

We need more bombs, wind turbines, and increased bank profits.


Sency   May 3rd, 2010 3:34 am ET

not sure why this is a priority rigth now – doesn't seem like it is that important

http://www.sency.com/water-stations.htm


Franko   May 4th, 2010 8:11 am ET

Russian nuclear rocket engine may get mankind to other planets
http://rt.com/Top_News/2010-01-28/nuclear-rocket-engine-space.html

Buy the technology from the Russians ?


Steve   May 14th, 2010 12:46 pm ET

The US has spent billions on development of nuclear reactors for space travel, but so far has little to show for it. There is a lot of political opposition to the use of nuclear energy for space travel. It is a severe constraint to allow NASA to use mainly chemical energy and radio isotope generators for space power and propulsion.


hebelman   June 2nd, 2010 7:12 pm ET

= = = Yeah right. Our human race has poisoned this planet’s fresh waters and the oceans and the air and extinguished many animal species and also enslaved its own people.
Now let us export our expertise to space and beyond.


vbscript2   June 4th, 2010 12:04 pm ET

"SpaceFan has suggested re-tasking the International Space Station, sending it on an orbit toward Mars. While this idea sounds reasonable in principle, I wonder about the difficulties its implementation would pose. Still, there are always possibilities ... perhaps it would be something to consider instead of de-orbiting the station at the end of its lifetime. However, I think that one should definitely consult with those better acquainted with spacecraft design and orbital mechanics to determine whether such a plan is, indeed, feasible."

I am and it's not. The ISS is designed for low Earth orbit. Plus, even if it could take an actual orbit of the sun between Earth and Mars (which it can't,) it would cost a fortune to put it into such an orbit. Furthermore, as R2K already mentioned, docking with it "on the way to Mars to refuel" is a really dumb idea for many reasons. The foremost of those is that fuel burn is only required during acceleration. Once a ship is already on its course to Mars, it is no longer using fuel unless it needs to change speed or direction. Incidentally, docking with something orbitting the sun (such as the proposed ISS orbit) would require changing both speed and direction in order to enter the same orbit as the station. It would then require changing speed and direction again to leave that orbit and continue to Mars. Whereas, without the docking, it would require nearly no fuel to just continue on towards Mars.


vbscript2   June 4th, 2010 12:14 pm ET

"More water the better because we are losing water quick and finding more water sources are better"

LOL! I'm curious to where exactly we're losing water. I don't think much of it has suddenly reached escape velocity and left Earth. I'm guessing we've got about the same amount of hydrogen and oxygen we've always had, with the exception of what little hydrogen we've fused into helium or otherwise played with in nuclear reactions.


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