“How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” is often asked rhetorically, to indicate disdain at a silly question, or to indicate amusement at the foolishness of early religious thought.

Although, Catholic theologians tell us the question is both misquoted and misunderstood. The original form of the question asked how many angels could occupy an arbitrarily small point in space  – there was no dancing involved. It was a serious philosophical thought experiment that touched on subtle questions about the nature of infinity, space, and divine nature. No theologian seriously proposed answers like 17 or 22. The only possibilities seriously considered were zero, one, and as “many as God wills.”

It’s ironic that this question is so often quoted to indicate the superiority of modern thought over medieval ignorance, when in fact it indicates a lack of historical and philosophical understanding among moderns. We cite this as an example of cultural bias, which one must always be on against when considering alien ideas.

Which brings us to our real subject – a recent press release by the SETI Institute, in which SETI Institute founder and former director Dr. Jill Tarter takes issue with physicist Stephen Hawking.

Dr. Tarter disagrees with recent statements by Dr. Hawking, who has warned that alien civilizations might harbor hostile intentions toward Earth. She states, “While Sir Stephen Hawking warned that alien life might try to conquer or colonize Earth, I respectfully disagree. If aliens were able to visit Earth that would mean they would have technological capabilities sophisticated enough not to need slaves, food, or other planets.  If aliens were to come here it would be simply to explore.”

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Written by Astro1 on June 12th, 2012 , Astrobiology

An Orbital Sciences Pegasus XL rocket is scheduled to launch the NuSTAR observatory, part of NASA’s Small Explorer satellite program, on June 13.

Orbital Sciences Corporation Pegasus XL rocket dropped from L-1011 Stargazer

NuSTAR, which stands for Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array, is notable because it will be the first high-energy X-ray satellite with true focusing optics, which will provide better sensitivity than previous instruments.

The launch is notable for Orbital Sciences because the air-launched Pegasus hasn’t been getting much business lately. In fact, the last Pegasus launch was back in 2008.

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Written by Astro1 on June 12th, 2012 , Commercial Space (General)



Charles Lindbergh was one of the great heroes of American aviation. His flight captured the public imagination and added momentum to the nascent movement for long-distance air travel.

The specific technology Lindbergh used for his flight – a high-wing single-engine monoplane with a huge fuel tank – had little direct effect on aviation, however. It was the development of reliable multiengine transport planes like the Douglas DC-3 that opened up the trans-Atlantic airways to passenger travel.

The United States government played a role in the development of commercial aviation that was as important as Lindbergh’s – not by developing airplanes or operating airlines, but by creating incentives such as the Kelly Air Mail Act and establishing the National Advisory Council on Aviation to do basic aeronautical research. So, while Lindbergh’s airplane was a single-purpose point design with little effect on future aircraft designs, that didn’t really matter. Government policies ensured that were hundreds of other entrepreneurs developing airplanes for a wide variety of purposes.

This division of labor between government and private enterprise, which worked so well in the development of American aviation, was abandoned at the beginning of the Space Age. In its place came a new model, advocated by rocket pioneers like Dr. Wernher von Braun and adopted by Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy, in which NASA abandoned the supporting role of its predecessor agency and assumed the role of the new Lindbergh.

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Written by Astro1 on June 11th, 2012 , Space Exploration (General)

A lot of people are scratching their heads trying to figure out the value, if any, of the two 2.4-meter  Hubble-class  telescopes recently donated to NASA by the National Reconnaissance Office.

As noted by Sky and Telescope, a Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope was one of the most important missions identified by the 2010 Astronomy and Astrophysics Decadal Survey. One or both of the NRO telescopes could fulfill that role.

Of course, a free telescope is like a free puppy. The telescopes currently lack both instrumentation and housekeeping, according to Sky and Telescope. And, of course, they require a ride to orbit.

These aren’t the only “free” telescopes to come out of the black world. There’s also a 120-inch (3-meter) Segmented Mirror Space Telescope which NRO donated to the Naval Postgraduate School.

What are the chances of NASA (or someone else) flying one of these telescopes?

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Written by Astro1 on June 8th, 2012 , Astronomy, Innovation

GE Garages are free workshops where aspiring builders of all levels can go to develop new skills and learn about modern manufacturing technologies. Developed by General Electric in cooperation with TechShop, Skillshare, Quirky, Make Magazine, and Inventables, GE Garages will facilitate the creation of one-off products, development of consumer products for mass consumption, and community participation in GE projects that address global or local challenges.

The GE Garage offers access to tools including a CNC mill, laser cutter, 3D printer, MIG welder, injection molder, cold saw, and ironworker.

A mobile pop-up Garage premiered at SXSW in Austin, later traveling to Houston, then to Maker Faire in San Mateo. Permanent GE Garages will open in Houston and San Francisco later this year.


Written by Astro1 on June 6th, 2012 , Citizen Science (General), Innovation

This drawing, which appeared last year in a NASA presentation on the Congressionally mandated Space Launch System, says it all.

launch vehicle size comparison

The Space Launch System is obviously far more capable than any other launch vehicle because it’s larger, right?

We can imagine a similar drawing produced by the US Army Air Forces during World War II:

World War II transport size comparison

The DC-3 (known in military circles as the C-47 Skytrain) was a tiny airplane by modern standards, smaller than many of today’s commuter jets. At the start of World War II, it was already considered too small and outdated by the military brass. Hence, the need for an aircraft like the Hughes H-4 Hercules.

Yet, it was the C-47, not the Hercules, that did the heavy lifting all throughout the war, and General Dwight Eisenhower named the C-47 as one of the four machines that won the war in Europe.

C-47s carried VIPs and paratroopers, spare parts, ammunition, and construction equipment. They carried pierced steel plate for their own runways. They carried horses and cattle, generators and gasoline. They carried complete fighter planes with the wings removed for transport. With the aid of the C-47, the United States built a string of air bases stretching all the way across the Pacific.

The Hughes H-4 Hercules, better known as the Spruce Goose, never even made it into the air by the end of the war. So, which was the more capable aircraft?

Of course, the difference between the XCOR Lynx and Masten XA 1.0 (on the far left side of the drawing) and the Space Launch System (on the right side) is more than size alone.

The Lynx and Masten XA 1.0 aren’t even orbital vehicles. The difference in performance between a suborbital vehicle and an orbital system is enormous, like the difference between an Apple II and a Cray supercomputer. We can imagine that drawing, too. And yet, it was the Apple II and its successors that ultimately proved to be the more capable computers. Mainframe supercomputers had an enormous head start but  microcomputers ultimately won because of the power of exponential growth, which favors technologies that have short development cycles and can evolve faster.

We recently visited the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California and saw a Cray 1 computer on display. It’s an impressive machine. It’s iconic appearance looks high tech even today, and it’s almost as powerful as the iPhone we used to take its picture.

That’s evolution in action. The suborbital vehicles of today are the space-transportation equivalent of the Apple II, laughably underpowered compared to giant mainframes like NASA’s Space Launch System, but they will drive down cost and open up space in ways we can barely imagine today.

Yes, we’ve said this before, and yes, we’re starting to sound like a broken record, but we will keep on saying it, because some things need to be said again and again, with fierce conviction.

Written by Astro1 on June 6th, 2012 , Commercial Space (General), Space Exploration (General)

Citizens in Space is going on the road this summer. We’ll be attending a number of events around the country to spread the word about the exciting opportunities for citizen science and space exploration enabled by reusable suborbital spacecraft.

Following today’s event in Seattle, we’ll be appearing at Maker Faire Kansas City on June 23-24 and Maker Faire Detroit on July 30-31.  We will be announcing additional events in the near future.

Written by Astro1 on June 2nd, 2012 , Citizens in Space, Events