Virgin Galactic – Where Next?

I’ve been watching Rob Rutan and his team at Scaled Composites with great interest over the years. I remember sending them an email wishing them luck for their historic flight on the 4th October 2004 when they became the first private team to put a man into space.

In doing so they claimed the Ansari X-Prize and Brian Binnie, the pilot, took his place amongst the great and the good in the annals of space flight history. Incidentally, the morning of the flight I received a personal note from Rob Rutan’s team thanking me for my wishes. I was gob smacked that they had the time to reply to well wishers!

Not only was this a monumental breakthrough in the race to open up space to commercial private ventures, it also captured the imagination of the world and Richard Branson in particular. Nine years later on and Virgin Galactic’s Space Ship 2, the first commercial space liner, has had its first successful test flight putting us a step closer to you and I being able to afford a quick sub-orbital flight.

So where next? Well other than Virgin Galactic there are two other organisations that currently bare scrutiny. In March this year SpaceX’s Dragon capsule became the first private commercial space vehicle to dock with the International Space Station proving the possibility of private ventures supplying the station whilst a new generation of rockets are built by NASA. At the same time Bigelow Aerospace is working on the next generation of expandable space station modules with it’s BEAM module scheduled for addition to the ISS in 2015.

Virgin Galactic has also announced Launcher One, a rocket solution designed to place small satellites into low earth orbit (LEO). So what does this all add up to? The answer is a slowly increasing capability to commercialise space and our first steps as a race, rather than one or two gifted individuals, into the cosmos. Melodramatic? Perhaps but then how long before we see the first privately owned space station/hotel and you and I having the possibility of looking down on the earth from orbit? With progress as it stands we’re probably only a few years away from the first private space station. Time will tell if Richard Branson will be inviting guests.


Space Rat Found on Mars!

You know, when it comes to other planets it would seem that there’s always someone with too much time willing to come up with a conspiracy theory. The latest involves a rock photographed by the NASA Curiosity Rover in a region on Mars that has been named “Yellow Knife Bay“.  A keen UFO enthusiast was trawling through 100’s of NASA Curiosity pictures when he discovered a picture with a rock central frame that does bare a startling resemblance to a rodent of some description. Theories of the nature of the rock ranged from a fossilized mammal  to a bizarre NASA experiment to see how long a  rat could live on Mars.

Sadly, and much to the chagrin of ufologists, the rock is just…well…a rock. Seeing forms we think we recognise in seemingly mundane objects happens due to a psychological phenomena known as pareidolia. It was proposed by Carl Sagan that human beings are hard wired to see forms we recognise in random patterns. From a survival perspective this is potentially a very useful trait, the thing lurking in the bush that looks like a leopard may actually be a leopard! From the perspective ufologists and those of us with the time to stare up at clouds on spring mornings,  it means that we see shapes in seemingly unusual places that we associate with real life objects.

Joy Crisp, a project scientist from NASA’s JPL told reporters yesterday that “Clearly, it [the rock] results from, you know, a lot of things like wind erosion and mechanical abrasion and breakdown chemical weathering of the rocks, as to why they get these weird shapes,”

In an odd but predictable twist to this story “@RealMarsRat” can now be found micro-blogging on twitter.

Curiosity is about to start it’s long journey to the base of Mount Sharp, a martian mountain that reaches 3.4 miles into the Martian Sky. NASA scientists are hoping to find more signs of liquid erosion as they study a region that they hope will be rich in visible sedimentary layers. Curiosity has already found striking evidence for ancient stream beds on Mars and conditions that could have suited microbial life in Mars’ past.