Tag Archives: Space Exploration

Faxes From the Far Side

On the 10th of January 1956—about a decade into the Cold War and about a year into the Space Race—the United States Air Force launched the first vehicle in its top secret Genetrix program. The vehicle was a balloon—an enormous, 200-foot-tall, 100-foot-wide helium balloon—the first of hundreds that the US would ultimately launch from sites in Scotland, Norway, Germany, and Turkey. Upon release, each balloon ascended into the stratosphere, where the winter jet stream was perfectly situated to carry it over and across the interior of the USSR. A coffin-sized gondola dangled from the bottom of each balloon, housing a set of downward-facing high-resolution cameras. Whenever an onboard photocell detected that the surface below was illuminated by daylight, these cameras snapped periodic photographs. The Genetrix balloons were some of the original high-altitude spy cameras—precursors to spy planes and satellites.

Whenever a balloon cleared Soviet airspace, the US Air Force sent an encoded radio signal that would detonate a small explosive charge on the gondola’s attachment line. If all went according to plan, a specially equipped C-119 airplane would be loitering in the nearby airspace, ready to snag the parachuting payload of photographic film in mid-air. Once retrieved, the film was sent back to the states to be developed and analyzed.

Launching a Genetrix balloon
Launching a Genetrix balloon

The Genetrix balloons were designed to be practically invisible to radar, using very thin balloon film and a gondola much smaller than a typical aircraft. And this might have worked were it not for the fact that one of the steel rods in the balloon rigging was 91 centimeters long. US Air Force engineers didn’t realize it at the time, but 91 centimeters happened to correspond to one of the frequencies used by Soviet early-warning radar. This caused the otherwise inconsequential rod to resonate and glint like a mirror on Soviet radar screens.

Soviet leaders were understandably annoyed when their military pilots reported back regarding the nature of these radar reflections. US officials replied that these were innocuous weather balloons for the study of cloud formations, a claim which was roundly ridiculed. During the day, there was little the Soviets could do about it apart from political posturing—the balloons cruised at 55,000 feet, which was higher than Soviet weapons could reach. But MiG fighter pilots soon discovered they could shoot the balloons out of the sky at sunrise. The chill of the night robbed the balloons of some of their buoyancy, and they dipped down into weapons range.

The Genetrix program lasted only 27 days. It had originally been planned to continue indefinitely, but president Eisenhower cancelled any further spy balloon launches due to the Soviets’ strenuous diplomatic protests. Of the 500 or so spy balloons that were launched, only about 50 camera gondolas were successfully recovered by the US Air Force. These provided over 10,000 reconnaissance photos of inland Soviet Union and China, including first peeks at nuclear and radar facilities.

The Soviets recovered a number of the gondolas themselves, and engineers began to dissect them, seeking useful information. To their surprise, they found something inside that happened to solve a little problem they had been having with one of their upcoming space missions: temperature-resistant and radiation-hardened photographic film.

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Better Call Sol

On 10 January 1709, pioneering weather observer William Derham recorded an historic event outside his home near London. He examined his thermometer in the frigid morning air and jotted an entry into his meticulous meteorological log. The prior weeks had been typical for an English winter, but overnight an oppressive cold had lodged itself over the Kingdom. As far as Derham was aware, London had never experienced so few millimeters of mercury as it did that morning: -12º C.

The remarkable cold lingered in Europe for weeks. Lakes, rivers, and the sea froze over, and the soil solidified a meter deep. The cold cracked open trees, crushed the life out of livestock huddling in stables, and made travel a treacherous undertaking. It was the coldest winter in the past 500 years, and one of the coldest moments in a larger global phenomenon known as the Little Ice Age. Likely causes include volcanic activity, oceanic currents, and/or reforestation due to Black-Death-induced population decline. It is nearly certain, however, that it has something to do with the unusually low number of sunspots that appeared at that time, a phenomenon referred to as the Maunder minimum.

We now know that such solar minima correlate quite closely with colder-than-normal temperatures on Earth, but science has yet to ascertain exactly why. Solar maximums, on the other hand, have historically had little noteworthy impact on the Earth apart from extra-splendid auroral displays. But thanks to our modern, electrified, interconnected society these previously innocuous events could cause catastrophic economic and social damage in the coming decades.

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The Martian Express

On the 5th of February 1974, NASA’s plucky Mariner 10 space probe zipped past the planet Venus at over 18,000 miles per hour. Mission scientists took advantage of the opportunity to snap some revealing photos of our sister planet, but the primary purpose of the Venus flyby was to accelerate the probe towards the enigmatic Mercury, a body which had yet to be visited by any Earthly device. The event constituted the first ever gravitational slingshot, successfully sending Mariner 10 to grope the surface of Mercury using its array of sensitive instruments. This validation of the gravity-assist technique put the entire solar system within the practical reach of humanity’s probes, and it was used with spectacular success a few years later as Voyagers 1 and 2 toured the outer planets at a brisk 34,000 miles per hour.

One of the more intriguing theories to fall out of the early gravity-assist research was a hypothetical spacecraft called the Cycler, a vehicle which could utilize gravity to cycle between two bodies indefinitely— Earth and Mars, for instance— with little or no fuel consumption. Even before the complex orbital mathematics were within the grasp of science, tinkerers speculated that a small fleet of Cyclers might one day provide regular bus service to Mars, toting men and equipment to and from the Red Planet every few months. Though this interplanetary ferry may sound a bit like perpetual-motion poppycock, one of the concept’s chief designers and proponents is a man who is intimately familiar with aggressive-yet-successful outer-space endeavors: scientist/astronaut Dr. Buzz Aldrin.

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The Third Reich’s Diabolical Orbiting Superweapon

Throughout the Second World War, the town of Hillersleben, Germany was home to one of the Third Reich’s most crucial weapons research centers. At a sprawling facility nestled in the forested hills, a contingent of 150 engineers and physicists developed and evaluated all manner of experimental weapons, a substantial number of which were ultimately adopted by the Nazi war machine.

When Germany surrendered in May 1945, the scientists at Hillersleben were forced to abandon an assortment of death-bringing innovations at various stages of completion. Among these were a rocket-assisted artillery shell which had 50% more range than standard artillery, a 600mm mortar which fired one-ton self-propelled projectiles for up to three and a half miles, a modified Tiger tank which could fire 760-pound rockets up to six miles, and a chain-like projectile made up of small, linked rockets with a range of 100 miles. But the military masterminds’ most sinister ambitions were embodied in their behemoth Sonnengewehr, or “Sun Gun” project— an orbital weapon intended to exact fiery punishment upon the enemies of the Third Reich, forever establishing their dominance over the genetically inferior Untermenschen of the Earth.

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The Origami Resolution

Goliath Beetle, robert j. lang origami
Goliath Beetle, robert j. lang origami

Since childhood Dr. Robert Lang has practiced origami. It was the convergence of his intensely creative mind and this ancient Japanese tradition that gave rise to his unique style of origami, which he developed into a renewed art and ultimately a science of practical application.

His intricate paper insect creations were a departure from the standard boats and cranes that have long been the tradition of origami. Over time his works grew more complex, featuring hundreds of folds and multiple pieces of paper, such as a full-scale cuckoo clock. Between his efforts to earn a PhD in applied physics, his job at NASA’s Jet Propulsion laboratory, his eighty technical papers, and his forty-six patents in optoelectronics and lasers, he somehow found time to implement and evolve a number of original origami designs.

The practicality of his scientific research began to influence his origami designs, until the line between the two began to blur. He participated in a project at EASi Engineering to develop complicated crease patterns for airbag folding designs. Lang also worked to design a mesh wire heart support to be folded and implanted in congestive heart failure patients; once inside, it would expand, protecting the heart. His most ambitious project to date, however, is shared with a team at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, with whom he has developed a space telescope – one that is forty times larger than the Hubble and collapsible for space travel through a series of precise origami folds.

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Space Radio: More Static, Less Talk

Arecibo Observatory, a 305-meter-wide radio telescope (courtesy of the NAIC - Arecibo Observatory, a facility of the NSF)
Arecibo Observatory, a 305-meter-wide radio telescope (courtesy of the NAIC - Arecibo Observatory, a facility of the NSF)

Owing to radio’s aptitude in transporting information, our planet is endlessly peppered by man-made low-frequency radiation. Phone conversations, computer data, text messages, radar echoes, sitcoms, and morning DJ chatter are all electromagnetically belched in every direction at the speed of light— including straight up into outer space.

Purveyors of science fiction are fond of exploring the ramifications of this radio leakage, suggesting that someday an advanced alien race might materialize to befriend, enslave, or destroy humanity after a little electromagnetic eavesdropping from afar. Indeed, if there happen to be any radio-savvy civilizations within 114 light years of Earth— an area which encompasses roughly fifteen thousand stars— humanity’s earliest meaningful transmissions will have already reached them.

Similar speculation appears in science non-fiction, such as the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) project, which strains its giant radio ears for extraterrestrial signals. When consulting the wisdom of probability, one finds that the universe ought to be teeming with technology-toting aliens; but aside from a couple of interesting-but-inconclusive detections, no discernibly intelligent patterns have ever been observed by Earth’s space-listening instruments. One might surmise that the conspicuous silence is “evidence of absence,” but such a conclusion might be a bit premature under the circumstances.

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The Daedalus Starship

Rendered image of the Daedalus, courtesy of Adrian Mann
Rendered image of the Daedalus, courtesy of Adrian Mann

In the winter of 1973, the men and women of the British Interplanetary Society convened in London to engage in some lively interstellar discourse. The members’ intent was to draw up a workable design for an extremely ambitious unmanned space probe, one capable of reaching a neighboring star system within fifty years. Moreover, they limited themselves to using only current and near-future technology, as this would allow the theories to be translated into practice one day if the concept proved feasible.

In order to reach even the nearest stars within the allotted fifty-year window, the thirteen scientists and engineers of the research group had a formidable task ahead of them. Their space probe would be required to accelerate to astonishing speeds, and it would need to weather the constant battering of particles from the soup of space debris known as the Interstellar Medium. In spite of these problems, in 1978 the organization presented a highly developed spaceship concept which may yet prove to be the model for future interstellar travel. It was called Project Daedalus.

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Outer Space Exposure

In scores of science fiction stories, hapless adventurers find themselves unwittingly introduced to the vacuum of space without proper protection. There is often an alarming cacophony of screams and gasps as the increasingly bloated humans writhe and spasm. Their exposed veins and eyeballs soon bulge in what is clearly a disagreeable manner. The ill-fated adventurers rapidly swell like over-inflated balloons, ultimately bursting in a gruesome spray of blood.

As is true with many subjects, this representation in popular culture does not reflect the reality of exposure to outer space. Ever since humanity first began to probe outside of our protective atmosphere, a number of live organisms have been exposed to vacuum, both deliberately and otherwise. By combining these experiences with our knowledge of outer space, scientists have a pretty clear idea of what would happen if an unprotected human slipped into the cold, airless void.

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