Category Archives: Space Science


I tweeted from the meeting in Seattle last Thursday that this was probably the biggest news from the event:

The Russian billionaire venture capitalist and amateur physicist is the man behind the Breakthrough Starshot mission to send a nano-spacecraft to the closest star, Proxima Centauri, and an initiative called Breakthrough Listen to use powerful radio telescopes to search for signals from intelligent extraterrestrial civilizations. Now Milner’s Breakthrough Initiatives has set its sights on Enceladus.

“We formed a sort of little workshop around this idea: Can we design a low-cost, privately funded mission to Enceladus which can be launched relatively soon?” Milner said at an inaugural international space summit called “A New Space Age” put on by the Economist magazine in Seattle, as reported by If Milner is serious about launching a spacecraft to Enceladus, it would be a historic feat as the first privately funded mission to the outer solar system. (If it launched today, it would be the very first private interplanetary mission at all.)

I haven’t talked about it on the blog, but I may be at least partially responsible for this. About a year ago, in the context of developing my Ending Apolloism rant, I started working out the possibilities of a private Enceladus mission, partly just to show that we don’t need no stinkin’ SLS to do fast outer-planet missions. All of the Congressional focus had been on Europa, due to enthusiasm for the mission by Chairman Culberson.

When I went to the New Worlds conference in Austin last year (previous version of the one I attended last week), I talked to Pete Worden about it, as well as John Mankins and John Carrico (who was Google’s astrogator at the time, before they sold off Terra Bella). They all thought it was feasible. However, Pete said that he didn’t think that Yuri would be interested in a private mission to Enceladus, because he wouldn’t want to be distracted from his starship. (Imagine someone typing that sentence a decade ago.)

I talked to some planetary scientists, including Carolyn Porco (PI on Cassini, who is very enthusiastic about prospects for life there, and who was at the Seattle event as well, giving a whoop of joy from the back of the room when Milner made the announcement) and Morgan Cable at JPL. Mike Loucks provided me with some porkchop plots, and we saw some interesting opportunities for fast trips to Saturn in March of every year, starting in 2020, for affordable C3s. It wouldn’t orbit, but be a fast flyby when the moon was outside the limb of the planet, at about 10 km/s, which Morgan told me would be a reasonable velocity to gather dust to search for organics and particularly amino acids. I also talked to ULA, who worked out some numbers of what could be done with Vulcan/ACES and a Star-48.

The idea would be to have a mother ship with a flock or flocks of cubesats that could scatter themselves around the limb of the moon, maybe in several waves to get time variation as well, to taste the flumes of the geysers. It would charge the batteries on the birds, send them off, and store and relay the data back to earth (it would require cooperation from NASA to use the Deep Space Network). I also talked to Professors Jordi Puig-Suari (inventer of the cubesat standard at Cal Poly SLO) and Dave Barnhart at USC about the feasibility, and they thought it would be a good cubesat app. My idea was to put together a basic mission concept and cost estimate, and look for money and a PI. I would be the inital project manager, until we could raise the money and hire someone else who knew WTF they were doing.

Anyway, when I saw Pete in Pasadena at the Space Tech Expo in May, he told me that Yuri had in fact developed an interest in ocean moons. I don’t know whether it was because of my suggestion to Pete or not, and I don’t know whether the workshop came up with something similar to my concept, but based on what Yuri said at that meeting, it sounds like it. In any event, I’m very happy to see this happening.


Here’s the difference between 99% and 100%.

[Friday-morning update]

“I’ve always thought eclipse chasers—these people who spend thousands of dollars flying around the world to spend two minutes looking at a solar eclipse—were a little nutty. I mean, that’s a little extreme, right? If you want to see what a solar eclipse looks like, type solar eclipse into Google.”

I was wrong.”

Space And Religion

A brief history of their relationship. I infer that she thinks evangelicals not supporting spaceflight is a problem, because of concern that it could reduce public support for it. Apparently she doesn’t realize that public support is irrelevant to a space future that is funded not by the government, but by private interests, which is what our space future now is.

[Update a while later]

Related, sort of. Laura Seward Forczyk describes her eclipse experience.

[Update mid-afternoon]

Another account from Miri Kramer.

[Update Wednesday morning]

It’s good to be an earthling.

The Eclipse In Southern California

Would have liked to see totality (guess it remains on the bucket list, maybe 2024 or somewhere else sooner), but we got about sixty percent coverage here. There was a thick marine layer when we awoke, but the clouds broke up in time for us to watch the whole thing. As I saw the moon slice along the left side of the sun, it was easy to imagine it projecting the full shadow a thousand miles north. I took a picture of a natural pinhole camera with hundreds of crescents in our driveway.

A few of my eclipse jokes on Twitter:


feel weird.

I wonder if the breaking down in tears is a current phenomenon, or if it’s traditional from when most people didn’t know what was going on, and thought it was the end times?

I disagree with this, though:

…for an eclipse with specific properties (such as total versus partial, long versus short, and tropical versus arctic) to make a repeat appearance in any particular region, one has to wait while eclipses work their way around the world like a set of gears, which requires three Saroses—a length of time equal to fifty-four years and around one month, or, more precisely, thirty-three days. Because this surpasses human life expectancy in that era four thousand years ago, it’s astonishing that the cycle was noticed at all.

Only if you don’t understand that life expectancy is an average, with a high standard deviation. Many, and particularly ancient astronomers, would have likely lived much longer than average.

We were in Denver over the weekend, and went up to Wondervu Saturday might for a meeting of the Sky Watchers club (invited by Leonard and Barbara David, who have a place up there in the mountains above Boulder). One of the lecturers (retired from the National Renewable Energy Lab in Golden) gave a talk on NREL’s analysis of probability of not having clouds along the entire path. He had seen the one in Aruba in the ’90s, and he and most of the people there planned to go up to Casper to see it. I’d like to, but I can’t justify time/money right now.