Sunday, July 27, 2008

Early Human Missions

While both the Soviet Union and the United States launched a series of artificial satellites, the major goal quickly became “putting a man in space.” This objective was less scientific than psychological and political. The Soviet communists were determined to demonstrate the superiority of their technology generally and, in particular, the might of their ballistic missiles. At the time, their rockets were more powerful than what the United States had. The Soviets were eager to demonstrate that they were capable of lofting a person (and all of the machinery necessary to support a person) into space—or a warhead onto an American city.

Just as the Soviets had been first into orbit with Sputnik, so, on April 12, 1961, they were first to put a person, Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin, into space—and into Earth orbit, no less. The first woman, Valentina Tereshkova of the USSR followed in 1963. It took America 20 more years to achieve this landmark. Through the rest of the 1960s, the Soviets and the Americans sent cosmonauts and astronauts into orbit and even had them practice working outside of their spacecraft in what were termed “extravehicular activities” or, more familiarly, space walks.

The Battle Cry of Sputnik

Impressive as the achievements of Piccard and others were, balloons could never move beyond the frontier of space. They needed the earth’s atmosphere to loft them.
After the war, scientists in America and the Soviet Union began experimenting with
so-called sounding rockets developed from the V-2s, in part to probe (sound) the upper atmosphere. While a sounding rocket was accelerated to speeds of up to 5,000 miles per hour, it would run out of fuel by about 20 miles up.

This acceleration gave the rockets sufficient velocity to continue their ascent to about a hundred miles, after which the rocket fell to Earth. Any instrumentation it carried had to be ejected, parachuted to safety and recovered, or the information had to be transmitted to a ground station by radio before the rocket crashed. The goal of rocket science at this point was not only to reach higher altitudes, but to achieve a velocity that could launch an artificial satellite into orbit around the earth. Imagine a rock thrown into the air. The force of gravity causes it to travel in a parabola and return to the earth. If the ball were thrown at a greater and greater velocity, it would travel farther and farther until it returned to the earth. At some velocity, however, the rock would never return to the earth, but continually fall toward it (this is what the moon is doing: orbiting the earth). It was no mean trick to get a satellite going fast enough to make it orbit the earth.

A single-stage rocket, like the V-2, exhausted its fuel supply before it reached sufficient altitude and velocity to achieve orbit. It lacked the necessary thrust. To build a more powerful rocket required a return to Goddard’s idea of a “stepped” or staged rocket. A staged rocket jettisoned large parts of itself as fuel in each lower part—or stage—ran out. Thus the rocket became progressively less massive as it ascended, both by burning fuel and by discarding the empty fuel tanks.

During the early and mid-1950s, there was much talk of putting a satellite into orbit, and both the United States and the Soviets declared their intention to do so. In the Cold War atmosphere of the time, it came as a great shock to Americans when the USSR was the first to succeed, launching Sputnik I (Russian for “satellite”) into orbit on October 4, 1957. The 185-pound (83.25 kg) satellite had been lofted to an altitude of about 125 miles (201 km) and had achieved the required Earth orbital velocity of some 18,000 miles (28,980 km) an hour. The first Sputnik was a primitive device by today’s standards. It did nothing more than emit a radio beep to tell the world it was there. But it didn’t have to do more than that. The point was made, the Space Age was born, and the space race had begun.

Playing with Balloons

While the V-2 had achieved great altitude by the 1940s, scientists were still a long way from attempting a human ascent. These early rockets were intended to explode at the end of the journey. If an instrument or a human were on board, explosions were to be avoided at all costs. In fact, another technology, the balloon, would be the first to take human beings into the upper stratosphere, the frontier of space. Auguste Piccard (1884–1962), a Swiss-born Belgian physicist, built a balloon in 1930 to study cosmic rays, which the earth’s atmosphere filters out. Piccard developed revolutionary pressurized cabin designs, which supported life at high altitudes, and, in 1932, reached an altitude of 55,563 feet. The following year, balloonists in the Soviet Union used Piccard’s design to reach 60,700 feet, and an American balloonist topped that later in the year at 61,221 feet.

From Scientific Tool to Weapon and Back Again

From the early 1900s through the 1930s, peacetime governments and the scientific community showed relatively little interest in supporting such pioneers as Tsiolkovsky, Goddard, and Oberth. Unfortunately, it took war in Europe, and a desire to launch bombs onto other nations, to spur serious, practical development of rockets. The research and development took place almost exclusively in Germany.
During the late 1930s, under the militaristic regime of Adolf Hitler, two rocket weapons were created. The first, known as the V-1, was more a pilotless jet aircraft than a rocket. About 25 feet long, it carried a 2,000-pound bomb at 360 miles per hour for a distance of about 150 miles. It was a fairly crude device: When it ran out of fuel, it crashed and exploded. Out of about 8,000 launched, some 2,400 rained down on London from June 13, 1944, to March 29, 1945, with deadly effect. In contrast to the V-1, the V-2 was a genuine rocket, powered not by an air-breathing jet engine, but by a rocket engine burning a mixture of alcohol and liquid oxygen.

The V-2 had a range of about 220 miles and also delivered 2,000 pounds of high explosives to its target. From September 8, 1944, to March 27, 1945, about 1,300 V-2s were launched against Britain. Scientists of every stripe spent the years from 1939 to 1945 directing their energies toward the defeat of the enemy. Many of the techniques developed during the war (radar technology and rocket engines, to name two) would become crucial to astronomy in the decades after WWII.
During the last days of the war in Europe, as U.S. forces invaded Germany from the west and Soviet forces invaded from the east, both sides scrambled to capture V-2s and, with them, German rocket scientists, such as Wernher von Braun. Both sides saw the potential in being able to deliver bombs over long distances. These rockets and the scientists who made them were at the center of the Cold War and the Space Race—a period of competition in politics and high technology between the two superpowers that dominated the postwar world.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

This Really Is Rocket Science

While spaceflight was the subject of many centuries of speculation, three men worked independently to lay its practical foundation. Konstantin Eduardovich Tsiolkovsky (1857–1935) was a lonely Russian boy, almost totally deaf, who grew up in retreat with his books. He became a provincial schoolteacher, but his consuming interest was flight, and he built a wind tunnel to test various aircraft designs. Soon he became even more fascinated by the thought of space travel, producing the first serious theoretical books on the subject during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Another quiet, introspective boy, this one a New Englander, Robert Hutchings Goddard (1882–1945), was captivated by H. G. Wells’s science-fiction novel War of the Worlds, which he read in an 1898 serialization in the Boston Post. On October 19, 1899 (as he remembered it for the rest of his life), young Goddard climbed a cherry tree in his backyard and “imagined how wonderful it would be to make some device which had even the possibility of ascending to Mars.” From that day, the path of his life became clear to him. Goddard earned his Ph.D. in physics in 1908 from Clark University in his hometown of Worcester, Massachusetts, and, working in a very modest laboratory, he showed experimentally that thrust and propulsion can take place in a vacuum (this follows from Newton’s Laws of motion—the expelled gases pushing forward on the rocket). He also began to work out the complex mathematics of energy production versus the weight of various fuels, including liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen. These are the fuels that would ultimately power the great rockets that lofted human beings into orbit and to the moon—and still power the launch of many rockets today. Goddard was the first scientist to develop liquid-fuel rocket motors, launching the inaugural vehicle in 1926, not from some governmental, multimillion-dollar test site, but from his Aunt Effie’s farm in Auburn, Massachusetts. Through the 1930s and 1940s, he tested increasingly larger and more powerful rockets, patenting a steering apparatus and the idea of what he termed “step rockets”—what would later be called multistage rockets—to gain greater altitude.

Goddard’s achievements were little recognized in his own time, but, in fact, he had single-handedly mapped out the basics of space-vehicle technology, including fuel pumps, self-cooling rocket motors, and other devices required for an engine designed to carry human beings, telecommunications satellites, and telescopes into orbit. Hermann Oberth (1894–1989), born in Austria, was destined for a medical career, like his father, but his medical studies were interrupted by World War I. Wounded, he studied physics and aeronautics while recovering. While he was still in the Austrian army, he performed experiments to simulate weightlessness, and designed a longrange, liquid-propellant rocket. The design greatly impressed Oberth’s commanding officer, who sent it on to the War Ministry, which summarily rejected it. After the war, University of Heidelberg faculty members likewise rejected Oberth’s dissertation concerning rocket design. Undaunted, Oberth published it himself—to great acclaim—as The Rocket into Interplanetary Space (1923). In 1929, he wrote Ways to Spaceflight, winning a prize that helped him finance the creation of his first liquidpropellant rocket, which he launched in 1931.
During World War II, Oberth became a German citizen and worked with Wernher von Braun to develop rocket weapons.

The Space Race

While countless human beings have gazed up at the sky with wonder, a few were never content just to look. They didn’t want to wait for the information to get here, they wanted to go there. In the second century C.E., the Greek satirist Lucian wrote the first account we have of a fictional trip from the earth to the moon. Doubtless, someone had thought about such a trip before Lucian, and certainly many contemplated space travel after him. It was not until the eighteenth century that people were first lofted into the air by hot-air balloons. And while the airplane made its debut in 1903, human spaceflight—in which a human ventured beyond the earth’s protective atmospheric blanket—did not come about until the 1961 flight of a Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin.

Chandrasekhar and the X-Ray Revolution

Electromagnetic radiation at the highest end of the spectrum can now be studied. Since x-rays and gamma rays cannot penetrate our atmosphere, all of this work must be done by satellite. Work began in earnest in 1978 when an x-ray telescope was launched, called the High-Energy Astronomy Observatory (later, the Einstein Observatory). The RÃķentgen Satellite (ROSAT) was next launched by Germany in 1990. The Chandra X-ray Observatory (named for astronomer Subrahmanyah Chandrasekhar) was launched into orbit in July 1999 and has produced unparalleled high-resolution images of the x-ray universe. The Chandra image of the Crab Nebula, home to a known pulsar, showed never before seen details of the environment of an exploded star. For recent images, go to X-rays are detected from very high energy sources, such as the remnants of exploded stars (supernova remnants) and jets of material streaming from the centers of galaxies. Chandra is the premier x-ray instrument, doing in this region of the spectrum what the Hubble Space Telescope has done for optical observations.

In 1991, the Gamma Ray Observatory (GRO) was launched by the space shuttle. It is revealing unique views of the cosmos, especially in regions where the energies involved are very high: near black holes, at the centers of active galaxies, and near neutron stars.

New Infrared and Ultraviolet Observations

Telescopes need to be specially equipped to detect infrared radiation—the portion of the spectrum just below the red end of visible light. Infrared observatories have applications in almost all areas of astronomy, from the study of star formation, cool stars, and the center of the Milky Way, to active galaxies, and the large-scale structure of the universe. IRAS (the Infrared Astronomy Satellite) was launched in 1983 and sent images back to Earth for many years. Like all infrared detectors, though, the ones on IRAS had to be cooled to low temperatures so that their own heat did not overwhelm the weak signals that they were trying to detect. Although the satellite is still in orbit, it has long since run out of coolant, and can no longer make images. The infrared capability of the Hubble Space Telescope provided by NICMOS (Near-Infrared Camera and Multi-Object Spectograph) yielded spectacular results while in operation. The Next-Generation Space Telescope (NGST) will be optimized to operate at infrared wavelengths, and will be cooled passively (by a large solar shield).

Ultraviolet radiation, which begins in the spectrum at frequencies higher than those of visible light, is also being studied with new telescopes. Since our atmosphere blocks all but a small amount of ultraviolet radiation, ultraviolet studies must be made by high-altitude balloons, rockets, or orbital satellites. The Hubble Space Telescope, for instance, has the capability to detect ultraviolet (UV) photons as well as those with frequencies in the visible and infrared. Ultraviolet observations provide our best views of stars, and stars with surface temperatures higher than the sun’s.

What is SETI?

If you’ve seen such sci-fi movies as The Arrival, Independence Day, or Contact, you already know about an organization called SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence). It is an international group of scientists and others who, for the most part, use radio telescopes to monitor the heavens in search of radio signals generated not by natural phenomena, but broadcast artificially by intelligent beings from other worlds. So far, no clearly artificial extraterrestrial radio signals have been confirmed, but SETI personnel keep searching. The SETI project got a large boost recently when Paul Allen, one of the co-founders of Microsoft, committed $12.5 million to the project. The new instrument to be built exclusively for SETI will be called the Allen Telescope Array.
If you are interested in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, you don’t have to just read about it, you can actually participate in it. A few highly committed amateur radio astronomers have built SETI-capable radio telescopes and spend time searching for artificial signals of extraterrestrial origin. If you’re not up to making such a commitment, the SETI Institute is developing an alternative. In a project called SETI@home, a special kind of screensaver program (a program that, typically, puts up a pretty, animated picture on your PC monitor when the computer is idle) has been installed on over 1.5 million computers in 224 countries. When the computer is idle, this program will use the time to go to work analyzing data from four million different combinations of frequency bandwidth and drift rate recorded by the world’s largest radio telescope at Arecibo, Puerto Rico. With thousands of computers crunching this data, the SETI Institute believes that it can analyze data more quickly, thereby increasing the chances of ferreting out a radio signal from an intelligent source. Information on SETI@home can be found on the Net at

Solar Flares and Meteor Events

Solar flares, are explosive events that occur in or near an active region on the sun’s surface. Flares can be detected with a very low frequency (VLF) receiver operating in the 20- to 100-KHz (kilohertz, or thousand hertz) band. (This is below the region of the spectrum where AM radio stations broadcast.) Such a receiver can be homemade, using plans supplied by such organizations as SARA. Solar flares can also be monitored in regular shortwave radio bands with a standard shortwave receiver. Why do solar flares create radio signals? They generate x-rays that strike a part of our atmosphere called the ionosphere, greatly enhancing the electron count in this atmospheric region. These electrons generate the noise picked up by the radio.