It’s Time for Pluto

In consideration of the historic exploration of Pluto by the New Horizons spacecraft, the Phoenix Chapter of NSS (and the Moon Society) will have the July meeting on Tuesday, July 14 at Arizona State University instead of the usual third Saturday schedule. ASU will be hosting public events for the close encounter with Pluto late in the afternoon of July 14 so we will join them and make it a Pluto Palooza!

The overall encounter and data download schedule is below. Note that due to spacecraft orientation constraints, we won’t be getting the best photos back until Wednesday and later. In fact, it will take over a year to download all of the high resolution data that New Horizons is collecting. But Tuesday is the encounter day, and considering the historic nature of this (the last time we will see the surface of one of the “classical” planets for the first time) we will have an event on July 14.

Basically the events at ASU start around 4 pm and will wrap up by around 7 pm. We will have handouts (stickers, data cards, etc) from NASA and Johns Hopkins University so it should be a lot of fun! I hope to see many of you there.

Mike Mackowski

President, Phoenix Chapter National Space Society

New Horizons event time line

ASU Pluto Palooza events (all at ISTB4 and Marston Exploration Theater)

Ariz Time (MST=PDT) Event Comment
Monday July 13
8:00 am NASA TV briefing on mission status
9:24 am Complete Fail Safe D LORRI and MVIC image download 170 pixels across Pluto
8:15 pm Complete download best pre-encounter LORRI image.Last image download until Wednesday morning. 630 pixels across Pluto
Tuesday July 14
4:30 am NASA TV briefing
4:50 am Closest approach
3:30 pm Meet ‘n Greet in ISTB4 lobby gallery
4:00 pm Dave Williams presentation on Dawn at Ceres and Pluto preview
5:00 pm NASA TV briefing: Phone Home, from APL mission control Watch at ASU
6:02 pm Expected time of arrival of “Phone Home” signal
6:15 pm Steve Desch presentation on Pluto and Charon
Wednesday July 15
2:30 am Begin 90 minute download of close up images
12:25 pm Complete download of selected best images
TBD NASA TV briefing with release of images

It’s Pluto Time

Commentary by Michael Mackowski

Over the next few weeks the curtains will be pulled back on the deepest, darkest secrets of the Solar System, and Pluto will be revealed. The New Horizons spacecraft has been traveling for almost ten years on a journey to explore this small dwarf planet. With this mission, humankind will have completed the initial reconnaissance of all of the classical planets. In other words, the upcoming fly by of Pluto will be the last time we will see the details of one of these planetary bodies for the first time.

Think about the significance of this. This initial exploration of the solar system has taken over fifty years, from the Mariner 2 Venus fly by in 1962 and the first close-up images of Mars by Mariner 4 in 1964. Some of us who were born at the right time have seen all of these unveilings. Each new space probe changed our view of the planets from fuzzy blobs in telescopes to crater and mountain covered worlds in their own right. As the spacecraft and instruments got more sophisticated, more and more details and wonders were revealed. These achievements surprised us with craters on Mars, volcanoes on Jupiter’s moons, geysers on a moon of Saturn, rings around Uranus, and on and on.

But poor Pluto lies at the edge of the solar system, demoted by some from real planet-hood to merely a “dwarf” chunk of rock and ice. It took over twenty-five years from the initial proposals for a Pluto mission to the July 14 close encounter. What will the New Horizons probe tell us in the coming weeks?

I think that the true ignificance of the New Horizons mission is not what will be revealed about what is on the surface of Pluto, but what it tells us about ourselves. We will never again have a first encounter with a historical planetary body. This means we have sent our robot emissaries to all the major bodies in the Sun’s family. That is an incredibly historic and momentous achievement. This event is more about what humanity is capable of doing than about how many craters are on Pluto. This is an achievement for humanity, for all of the people of Planet Earth, not just for the scientists and engineers. In these times when there is so much news about death and hatred, it can remind us that we are one people all living together on one small planet in a very large universe. Perhaps it can inspire us to look beyond our petty differences and ancient prejudices and consider ourselves as one humanity, joined by our common bond to this fragile planet we call home. Perhaps by conceiving the heavens, we can flourish on Earth.


The Awesome and the Tedious

Commentary by Mike Mackowski

There are some cool things going on in space exploration, and these are developments that involve true exploration. There are also a lot of things going on behind the scenes regarding how the National Space Society operates, and these can get rather tedious.

First, the awesome stuff. We are getting our first close look at two very interesting solar system bodies, Pluto and Ceres (not to mention Pluto’s several moons). Ceres, with its mysterious bright spots, get more and more intriguing as the images continue to get better. As the New Horizons spacecraft approaches Pluto, we are finally starting to see the dim planet’s personality take shape. The next couple of months will be fun and exciting.

There have also been some interesting developments in experimental space technology. The privately funded LightSail, a cubesat sponsored by the Planetary Society, successfully deployed a solar sail in low Earth orbit in early June. This technology has the potential for low cost, deep space missions with this new capability to move around the solar system. There are constraints, certainly (you don’t get anywhere fast, and it doesn’t work well in the darker deep reaches of space), but it is great progress. It is also refreshing to see success by a non-government sponsor of such technology.

Another technology demonstrator, NASA’s Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator (LDSD), did not fare so well. This inflatable heat shield and high speed aerobrake was tested again near Hawai’i, but the supersonic parachute disintegrated shortly after deployment. They had similar issues on a previous flight, and despite what might be considered a failure, this is how you learn. By observing a failure, you understand the limits of the design, and can now go back and fix it.

These demos are great examples of how we are advancing the technology that will expand humanity into the solar system. But on the policy level, I don’t think we are making as much progress. I think most people can agree on the goal of expanding mankind into space, but not on the path to get there. You have factions supporting SLS or commercial space, NewSpace versus traditional aerospace firms, etc. This week I was observing an email debate between lunar railguns versus lunar space elevators. In my view, that is a moot argument (especially for a forum on chapter issues), since neither one is going to happen any time soon. There was also a debate on how NSS should deal with the partisan bickering in Congress over NASA’s budget. I doubt that NSS has any influence over the eventual outcome, but we sure wasted a lot of energy arguing about it on teleconferences and emails.

From my perspective as the local leader of the Phoenix Chapter of NSS, I am looking for ideas and resources from my NSS national leadership on how to sponsor effective local events, how to recruit more members, etc. While lunar elevators versus railgun launchers may be an interesting academic discussion, that is not helping me figure our how to convert some new young space enthusiasts into future leaders of NSS at the local or national level. I fear that if these young candidate leaders are exposed to the constant internal bickering, pointless debates, and ineffective meeting management that is so typical of NSS, they will want nothing to do with the group on any level. As an organization, NSS needs to grow up and become more professional in how they set policy, support local chapters, and establish their public image. The Society’s tedious tendencies in these areas may be the very reason there are so few younger people willing or interested in becoming more active and involved.

May 16 NSS Phoenix Meeting

The May meeting of the Phoenix Chapters of the National Space Society and the Moon Society will be at our usual date and location on the third Saturday (May 16, 11 am) at the Humanist Center in Mesa. Dr. Dave Williams from ASU will give us an update on the Dawn mission to Ceres.  The Dawn spacecraft has entered its science orbit about this minor planet and is starting to return exciting images of this body. As always, see the blog at for more details as well as interesting commentary.


Dr. David A. Williams is an Associate Research Professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration at Arizona State University, Tempe, Arizona. Dr. Williams is the Director of the Ronald Greeley Center for Planetary Studies, the NASA Regional Planetary Information Facility at ASU. He is also the Director of the NASA Planetary Aeolian Laboratory at the Ames Research Center in California. David is currently performing research in volcanology and planetary geology, with a focus on planetary mapping, geochemical, and remote sensing studies.

Hope you can make it!


Mike Mackowski

President, Phoenix chapters NSS & TMS

2015 Space Access Conference

Commentary by Mike Mackowski

I attended the last two days of this year’s Space Access Conference, held April 30 through May 2 at the Radisson Phoenix North hotel. Henry Vanderbilt has done a marvelous job pulling this event together year after year, and it has evolved from something like a hyper-hobbyist rocketry meeting to a mini-version of the International Space Development Conference.

The topics get more diverse each year and this was no exception. There were the expected updates from folks like Jeff Greason (XCOR) and Dave Masten (Masten Aerospace) but also from student groups, researchers, and other experts involved in trying to find ways to speed the development of an off-planet economy. But what struck me was an over-riding theme of honesty and reality among the presentations. Lately I’ve been exposed to a lot of what I call “space hype” where people predict great things and make promises of achievements that clearly are not going to happen. Not so at this year’s Space Access.

It started with Henry Spencer’s honest appraisal of the concept of mining extraterrestrial resources. Sure, there may be water on the Moon’s poles but getting it out will be difficult and expensive. We current have no idea if the ice is embedded in the form of a very hard solid or available as a fluffy snow. Breaking down water into hydrogen and oxygen takes a lot of energy, and storing liquid hydrogen is difficult. Pete Swan continued with his examination of the economics of mining asteroids, and (along with Jeff Greason) anticipated that we’d have to plan on a government-sponsored Mars mission as the initial anchor customer. That is a reasonable plan, but it adds a lot of uncertainty. Doug Plata promoted using the COTS approach to lunar development. This is certainly an appealing idea, but achieving a true cis-lunar economy based on extraterrestrial resources is a long, long way off. Establishing a market for these products will be difficult. It was refreshing to see these problems laid out honestly.

There were similar frank appraisals of the challenges of getting humans to Mars. Erik Seedhouse gave a talk on the many unknowns (radiation, low gravity, bone decalcification) related to the human body’s reaction to long term spaceflight, or even long duration visits to low-gravity surfaces. Perhaps studying some of these effects on the Moon is a smart option before committing to Mars. Several speakers, particularly Gary Hudson, suggested that what is really needed is a true variable gravity biology lab in low Earth orbit. NASA seems to think humans will simply adapt to low gravity and we can do initial Mars missions before we have these answers. That approach has a lot of risk, and we’ll need a lot more data before permanent settlements can be assured of any sort of chance for success.

There were other examples of reality-based perspectives. XCOR (and other companies) would love to develop a non-toxic monopropellant but the chemistry makes that very difficult and/or expensive, so most folks fall back to hydrazine. Going from reusable, high altitude, suborbital rockets to reusable orbital vehicles is a huge, difficult jump. Doug Messier gave a sobering assessment of Virgin Galactic, the SpaceShipTwo accident, and the observation that it is over ten years from them winning the Ansari X Prize and it is still unknown when the first commercial tourist flights will occur and what will be the performance capabilities of the vehicle.

There were other topics presented, many offering clever solutions to some of these challenges. But overall I was happy to see some honesty and realism in the general tone of the conference.

Watch This Space

I’m way behind in posting any commentary here even though there have been a number of interesting developments in the space industry. So here we go again.

Lockheed Martin announced a fascinating space vehicle design called Jupiter (after the first intercontinental railroad engine) as their entry in the CRS-2 (commercial resupply service) program. It is a partially re-usable space tug with an integral robotic arm that is used to swap out payload modules. It uses a fair amount of existing designs, much like Orbital ATK’s Cygnus, but adds a long-lived segment that transfers fresh cargo modules. This is very reminiscent of 1970s vintage space cargo tugs. LockMart postulates that this design could be used not just for ISS resupply but also in support of cis-lunar and even interplanetary activities.

I like the idea and think it is rather clever, but I wonder about the economics. Usually complex designs (robotic arm, replaceable modules, refueling, etc.) are costly to develop and tend to have features that don’t work as designed or as well as expected. This results in stretched out development schedules, increased costs, and diminished capabilities. Still, it is a fresh take on the pre-shuttle space tug concept and it will be interesting to see how it fares.

Another development was a set of conferences and workshops that resulted in some interesting announcements. One was from the Pioneering Space National Summit, an invitation-only gathering of over 100 people from government, industry, and advocacy groups. It’s notable that I have yet to find a list of who actually participated in this summit and who signed the consensus statement. They came out with a rather bland vision statement that essentially said space exploration is a good thing and that it should eventually lead to space settlements. Apparently the fact that they got so many people from many disparate organizations to agree on the wording was considered a huge accomplishment. I can see their point, but if it took a herculean effort to wordsmith a vanilla pudding statement like that, it is going to be really difficult to make the really hard decisions.

Another invitation-only workshop was co-sponsored by the Planetary Society and considered human missions to Mars. The idea was that recent studies predict sending people to Mars (and bringing them back) will be unaffordably expensive. This workshop re-examined that and determined that the current NASA budget trend would still allow development of human missions to Mars within twenty years. One of their key findings was to include sending people on Mars orbital missions first. It would take both government and private sector involvement but could be done without a need to double or triple NASA’s budget. That is encouraging news, but it still requires a long-term national commitment that I’m not sure can be established in today’s short attention span political and social climate.

Yuri’s Night is Almost Here!

April 12 is the anniversary of the first man in space, Yuri Gagarin. The world celebrates with a global space party! Once again, the students of SEDS at ASU are leading the way with the local Phoenix event. It will (probably) be at ISTB4 on Sunday evening, April 12, although the location may change to another building. There will be food, fun, and a movie.  Plan to be there, as everyone is welcome!

Watch these sites for updates: