Science Saturday: Meteor Shower Tonight + Solar Flare + Asteroid Mining + Popocatépetl Erupting

This week in Science Saturday, watch the peak of tonight’s Lyrid meteor shower, watch an explosion on the sun, look forward to asteroid mining becoming a reality in the near future, and feel the volcanic tremors of Popocatépetl volcano. All this and more, plus our gadget of the week: the high-speed evacuated tube transport system.


Lyrid Meteor Shower Peaks TONIGHT plus First-ever 3D Meteorite Imagery Attempt
About this time ever year, Earth passes through the tail of comet Thatcher, sending pieces of the comet’s debris stream into the Earth’s atmosphere at about 110,000 mph. Lucky for us here on Earth, our thick atmosphere burns them up and creates a gorgeous shooting star show, with typically 15-20 “Lyrids” streaking across the sky every hour. Well, the annual Lyrid meteor shower peaks TONIGHT, and this year is going to be an extra good time to view it, since the moon will be new, meaning skies will be darker.

Given the dark skies and particularly good viewing geometry of this meteor shower, the first-ever attempt will be made to image the shower in three glorious dimensions through a photographic collaboration between amateur photographers on the ground, cameras aboard a NASA research balloon in the stratosphere, and astronauts aboard the International Space Station.

Typical Lyrids are very bright, and the best time to look up is during the hours after midnight when the meteors should be high in the sky. If you don’t have clear skies near you, you can still join the fun and stay up all night to chat with Bill Cooke, the head of NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Office, and colleagues on a live NASA chat session.

Huge Solar Flare Erupts on Sun’s Surface
With solar activity coming out of a very long minimum, solar scientists are excited to be able to watch the sun acting out thanks to some amazing instruments, like NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory, whose cameras and sensors are aimed at our star. A recent ginormous eruption on the sun’s surface was captured by SDO and turned into a movie by media specialist for the Goddard Space Flight Center Steele Hill. Note the curvature of the sun in the video and remember that the sun’s radius is more than 100x that of Earth, and you’ll quickly realize just how big this flare is. Earth would appear as a tiny dot in this image.

Read more about the event at Bad Astronomy.

Planetary Resources Inc., a Capitol Venture to Mine Asteroids?
A new company backed by two Google billionaires, sci-fi director James Cameron, a former Microsoft exec, Ross Perot Jr., and a host of space exploration enthusiasts has just released a tantalizingly mysterious press release stating that it will “overlay two critical sectors—space exploration and natural resources—to add trillions of dollars to the global GDP”. The official announcement will be made on Tuesday, but experts speculate that it will be in the form of asteroid mining. If true, this could mean sending humans to near-earth asteroids or performing robotic missions to gather material and send it back to Earth or who knows! The world of space exploration isn’t just for the government anymore!

We’ll find out Tues if asteroid mining is on the docket for Planetary Resources, Inc.

Popocatépetl Volcano, Mexico City Prepares for an Eruption, Goes on Yellow Alert
Popocatépetl, an active volcano that towers over Mexico City, has had a recent spurt of activity that has locals concerned. So far, ash emissions with a steam and ash plume as high as 10,000 feet, 12 explosions within a 2-hour period, and ongoing seismic tremors have been reported. There are even some (unconfirmed) reports of fresh lava at the summit. Explosions have been powerful enough to rattle the windows of local homes. Officials have placed the volcano on yellow alert (alert level Yellow II) and have told residents to prepare in case evacuation becomes necessary.

You can see live webcam images of Popocatépetl from the Mexican volcano observatory’s website CENAPRED here, here, and here. Images refresh each minute. If the image appears blank, it might be nighttime in Mexico, or it may be too cloudy!

Webcam image of Popocatépetl’s ashy plume on April 20th

Pic(s) of the Week: Space Shuttle Discovery on it’s way to Washington DC
Space shuttle Discovery was strapped to the back of an airplane this week and transported for its museum debut in Washington, D.C. Here are just a couple of the amazing photos of the shuttle on its route to its new home.

Click to embiggen

Gadget of the Week: Evacuated Tube Transport Gets You From NY to LA in 45 Minutes
Lunch in New York? Dinner in Paris? It may be possible, thanks to the evacuated tube transport, a high speed human transportation system, which employs a maglev-like airless, frictionless system of six-person capsules that travel in tubes. The sytem would be much cheaper and much faster than trains and plains and could get you around the world in just six hours.

Science Bytes
Not enough science for you? Here’s a warp-speed look at some more science tid-bits that are worth a peek.


Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

Pretty cool about the meteor shower. Hope everyone in Mexico takes the warnings serious. Can I get on the ship to go to the Astroid’S.

If James Cameron says he wants to mine asteroids, then I truly believe he will someday. The man willed a early 1:1 scale Titanic replica into existence and then submerged it. He revolutionized filmmaking, engineered new technologies for both CGI, 3D and deep sea exploration. I have tremendous respect for the works and sheer audacity of James Cameron; a true, modern renaissance man.

One potential side benefit to asteroid mining (aside from material wealth in minerals) would also be to perfect the technology used to divert them from collision orbits with Earth.

Evacuated Tube Transport – Futurama!!

As for mining the asteroids… FINALLY! If NASA would show a little practical thought, it wouldn’t be a dying dinosaur. Who cares. Billionaires want to get richer, and the only way is out… into space. There’s gold in them thar 3 or 4 AU’s away hills!

Very fitting that the announcement should come as the Shuttles fly away to museums. I’m sorry. They did some marvelous things. But, we should not have spent 35 years in orbit. Sheesh. We should have been on Mars in the 90’s. My opinion.

Anyway — thanks, Kayla!

3. CmdrR

Sooo agreed!!

The shuttle; boldly going…. to the same place for 30 years! It’s sucked the exploration programs dry (my cousin works for NASA at Caltech; their budget is next to nothing thanks to the shuttle and ISS), and in hindsight, there was never a compelling reason to launch crew and cargo together. That’s why orbital rendezvous was perfected… in the mid-1960s!
For me, the only real shuttle highlights were (IMO):

(a) Launching the Galileo and Magellan probes (something that was probably feasible with an unmanned booster someway, but oh well….)

(b) Atlantis/Mir. The “Apollo/Soyuz” of the ’90s. A nice step toward future cooperative ventures into deep space. Sadly, it only yielded a bigger space station (the ISS; a craft in search of a mission)….

(c). Most importantly; the repair and servicing of the Hubble Space Telescope. That was ONE task uniquely fitted to the orbiter’s specifications and design. And since Hubble has dramatically and forever altered our perception of the known universe? I’d call that worthwhile.

While the shuttle is a magnificent achievement in aviation technology (it’s the ‘Space SUV’), it was also a dangerous vehicle with far too many design flaws and complications that killed 14 astronauts. Not wishing to offend any shuttle-files out there, but personally? I’m glad to see it retire….

So they’re essentially those mail tubes that they used to have in buildings. I wonder how they’d access the tubes if there were troubles midroute.

I love the idea of the evacuated tube transport. If only some billionaire with a vision of doing something lasting could start a small pilot program to inspire generations. To show us something can be done with great wealth besides accumulating more wealth.

Much interesting stuff. I especially like the mining story. However, I think you meant “Capital Venture “. (capital = money, capitol = seat of government)

[Braces for the inevitable nasty remark about a grammatical correction]

4. Sebastian… The Space Station has taught us an enormous amount about how to design, build and operate a large, complex space vehicle… which any manned mission to Mars or asteroid mining operation inevitably will be. I don’t expect the Station to ever get the respect it deserves, but pretty much anything we do in the next fifty years in space will owe a huge debt to the Space Station.

I think the ISS is worth the expense, and NASA should do more to promote this accomplishment. I can remember being an eager young space cadet in the late ’80s and early ’90s and seeing concept art for the ISS in my grade school’s science books, showing a small city of connected modules surrounded by big beautiful solar panels, and now 20 years later—hey, look up!—there it is!

Of course those books also showed bases on the Moon and Mars… and predicted we could land a man on Mars by 2010… so…

One down, two to go.

The shuttle on the other hand—sorry, but that was an unimaginative, over-invested boondoggle. Two or three would’ve been fine, but did they have to build more than that? And if so, why stick with that same design from the ’70s? Whatever happened to the “space plane”?

8. Thorny

With all due respect, you don’t really NEED a big vehicle to go to Mars; you spread the payload across several smaller launches. NASA once commissioned a return to Mars back in 1989 (for launch it 2019). It was generally a huge and unwieldy spaceship that many within NASA derided as the “Battlestar Galactica” plan. It never saw the light of day.

Fortunately, we’ve learned enough about Mars (especially in the last decade) to know how to ‘live off the land’ so-to-speak. Using native martian elements (and only imported hydrogen from Earth), you could send automated air/rocket fuel factories from earth ahead of the human travelers which would manufacture air and rocket fuel from the native carbon dioxide in automated factories (a working prototype of which has already been built and tested years ago).

Then, in a year or so, you launch your manned spacecraft (a smaller vehicle) which would be unburdened with all the extra fuel/air for the return trip, as those supplies would be awaiting them on the surface of Mars.

Read Bob Zubrin’s “A Case for Mars” written in 1996. He is a former NASA engineer who now heads the Mars Society (a non-profit group dedicated to future exploration of the red planet).

You really DON’T need a big ISS-sized spacecraft to get to Mars (and a Constellation-sized spacecraft would easily do for an asteroid rendezvous mission). Bigger, more powerful spaceships are hangovers from wasteful, space-shuttle-era engineering. There are new approaches that are less costly, not to mention simpler and easier to build….

Can you see the meteor shower from anywhere tonight?

And not to sound like I’m trolling (and I’m not, really), but much of what we have ‘learned’ on the ISS was already gleaned from the US Skylab in the ’70s, as well as the Soviet/Russian Salyuts and Mir stations of the ’70s through the ’90s.

My cousin works for NASA and he’s told me (half-kiddingly) that there is actually a team who’s sole function is to try to think of new things for the ISS crew to do, as they really have no set agenda anymore (other than routine earth orbit/solar observations that are easier to do with satellites, and housekeeping procedures). The only thing that really kept the US in the ISS game was our commitment to our international partners in the project, and nothing more. But honestly? They’re really not doing anything new up there….

And # 10. Vultan.

Couldn’t agree more.
When I was a kid, we thought the shuttle would be the reliable space truck that would fly into space dozens of times a year (becoming almost routine). It never happened. It was a dangerous, overly-complex machine that, per launch, cost almost as much as an Apollo moon shot. The shuttle’s early promise of ‘easy-access-to-space’ was an altogether different reality from what actually transpired over the last 31 years…


Huh, they have to invent things for them to do on ISS? Well, I suppose my support of it is simplistic then, simply because it was accomplished and fulfilled one boyhood fantasy. “Because it’s there.” Too bad it’s such an expensive “there.”

# 14

I apologize if I phrased that harshly Vultan. It was NOT my intention, I assure you. I was just trying to illustrate that sometimes even the noblest dreams (a permanent presence in earth orbit) just don’t make good fiscal sense. It’s ugly that spaceflight has to be tethered to modern economics, but like the Ferengi, that’s the world we live in….

The ISS was one of those ideas born of the shuttle’s promise of routine access to space (with a vehicle big enough to bring up new modules for it, able to service those modules, etc). Now that the shuttle is retired, it’s kind of ironic that it can only be visited by small, disposable, capsule spacecraft based on a 47 yr. old (and only slightly modified) Soviet design (that’s STILL in use, I might add…).

And you’re right, Vultan.
It really (and sadly) is a VERY expensive ‘there.’ ;-)


No need to apologize. You’re right. Like the shuttle, the ISS is expensive and took far too long to complete. And it is probably a boondoggle for all those involved.

But I can’t help but like and admire the thing. It’s up there. Countries united to build it. We planned for it. We did it—finally.

In the age of lowered expectations, that is one little, tiny, drop-of-water-for-a-thirsty-man-in-the-desert thing to be proud of. :D

# 16

And it looks really swell in the opening credits of “Enterprise”, too… ;-D

Pretty Cool.

The evacuated tube transport reminds me of that Roddenberry show, Genesis II.

As to the Lyrids, strike it up to yet another astronomical event that will be ruined by South Florida weather. Whenever there is an astronomical event coming up where there will not be a moon to brighten the sky, it seems to always be either raining or overcast in South Florida. People always rave about the weather in South Florida, but until you live in it 24/7/365 and see it is either too hot, too humid or overcast when you need clear skies, you wouldn’t be so quick to want to be here because it isn’t like in the movies or on TV or in post cards;)

The Saturn V should have been further developed instead of wasting time with the shuttle. In terms of weight, a Saturn V could have lifted the shuttle (minus SRBs and external tank) and all its payload into orbit. Not to mention it was able to venture beyond Earth orbit, where the shuttle was not.


Yes, you really do need a big spacecraft to go to Mars. There just isn’t any getting around that. Simple arithmetic for a crew of four for ~600 days brings you to about three ISS “Destiny”-class modules for food, water and living space alone. Then add in propulsion, solar wings and radiators (or a nuclear power source) radiation “storm” shelter (which will be heavy), the lifeboat/return vehicle, or the lander. All of which must be on the same outbound flight. (The Mars Habitat and Return Vehicle can fly separately.)

Even Zubrin’s Mars spacecraft was huge. It just wasn’t as huge as what had been considered before (your aforementioned and rightly ridiculed Space Exploration Initiative of 1989). His mission was to be launched by two Saturn V-class rockets for every 26-month Mars window, remember. all. That’s somewhere around 500,000 lbs., compared to the 900,000 lb. International Space Station.

Most of the weight that Zubrin’s “Mars Direct” saved was in propellant, by using in-situ propellant manufacturing for the return trip. He did cut the mass of the spacecraft itself somewhat, but saner heads have added some of that back, deciding additional redundancy and safety (his was cut to the bone) is worth the extra mass.

And yes, SkyLab showed us that flights longer than two weeks were possible, but its longest mission was only 88 days, far too short to be useful for Mars planning. SkyLab did not have a closed-loop life support system, user-replaceable equipment if something breaks, etc. It was intended as only the prototype for a real space station… the one we have now. The Russians did a 437-day stay about Mir once, but their record keeping of the flight was atrocious. NASA had hoped to learn a lot from gaining access to Mir data… until it found out there *wasn’t any*. There is very little medical data about Polyakov’s condition before, during or after his 437-day flight, for example, which is what NASA badly wanted. So NASA, ESA, JAXA, and RSA are currently planning an ultra-long duration stay aboard ISS, probably beginning around 2015, to demonstrate the ability to do a manned Mars mission and be in good enough health to be productive when they get there. They are also planning a “Mars Simulation” on ISS, where comm-delays between Earth and a Mars mission will be simulated, to see how the crew handles things without instantaneous assistance and answers from Mission Control.

The asteroid mission that NASA is currently tinkering with using Orion would actually make use of Space Station components. You’ll need somewhere to store food and water for the crew for the multi-month flight, so one of the ISS cargo modules is presently baselined for that job. They are also looking at using technology from Europe’s ATV, a spacecraft design and built for support of the Space Station.

13. Sebastian… your friend is a bit confused. No, there is not a team who’s job is to find things for the crew to do. What is going on is that a two or three years ago, the President (Bush, I think) designated the Space Station as a “National Laboratory”. So now there is a team that is working with industry and academia to set up how to use this National Laboratory (so in that sense, yes, there are people trying to find things for the astronauts to do, but isn’t that why we built the thing?)

NASA actually had thousands of experiments it planned to do on the Station, but the funding for most of that was cut (surprise, surprise.) The most important scientific module, the Centrifuge, was canceled outright after Columbia was lost. The National Laboratory concept was set up to replace NASA as the scientific user of the Station, turning NASA into just a middle-man for experiments, instead of planning and running them itself. In the last week, there was a report that NASA has upgraded the comm system on ISS to at least double the amount of communications time between the Station and Mission Control, which should greatly improve scientific access to experiments. NASA also has been working on new, smaller laboratory “experiment modules” (called Nanoracks) that are easier to transport on the commercial supply ships than the big experiment racks that were designed to be carried to and from on the Shuttle. Nanoracks increase both number and frequency of experiments that can be flown to the Space Station.

Here in London we’ve been taking the Tube to work for over a centuary!


So the ISS is now pretty much McMurdo Station… in orbit.
Sounds good to me.

love these articles thnx

Hmm… is it possible to cost-effectively mine an asteroid? I would guess you’d have to send a probe first to see if there’s anything worth mining on it before you send a mining crew… apologies if this is a dumb question, but do we have the capability to track an asteroid accurately enough that we can send two rockets to it in very quick succession?

Here’s a solution for a Mars mission and size ship you need. First, send a return vehicle ahead unmanned and have it land remotely on Mars. You can do this for any scientific equipment and shelter (with food, water, medical supplies, etc) needed while staying on Mars. You can’t go there and back in one trip, there is going to be some time they will have to spend on Mars before the orbits line up again for a return trip window using the least amount of fuel. This would free up the need for a very large vehicle to take you there as half of the cargo in the form of the return vehicle (or a launch vehicle from the surface to rendezvous and dock with a “mother ship” that would be used for the trip back that stays in orbit while the crew goes to the surface. This launch vehicle could ferry supplies that were stored on the surface to resupply the mother ship for the return trip home) would have been sent ahead.

I believe they did this in a movie already, just can’t remember which one.


I believe it was either “Red Planet” or “Mission To Mars.”

But read Bob Zubrin’s “A Case for Mars.” He states essentially the same mission profile only the ‘supply ship’ that would arrive earlier could automatically use native Martian carbon dioxide to make rocket fuel and air (with only some imported hydrogen from Earth).

# 22.


It was my cousin, not a friend; and I did say he was ‘half-kidding.’ ;-)
I think my cousin’s point was the space station is a craft without a clearly defined goal; it’s not like a LEM or a flight to a planet. It’s almost more an exercise in diplomatic obligation and cooperation than actual space exploration. Which is fine. It’s there, it’s built. Might as well enjoy it, right?


Great stuff Kayla. I thought the solar flare was a CGI but it just goes to show that real life can be more interesting than the movies.

I know I had some fun with the Tacocopter a couple of weeks ago. But this is on the Huffington Post”s front page via the Wall Street Journal. Fifty institutions have received permission to operate flying drones. If any of them have Hellfire missiles, I’m going to duck and cover. ;-)

You all see Leonard Nimoy’s cool cameo as William Bell on “Fringe” last night?

26. Not at today’s launch costs. We’ll need an order of magnitude (or more) reduction in launch costs before we get anywhere close to it being practical. That kind of reduction is probably only going to come with a fully reusable launch system. SpaceX is presently toying with the idea (though I think their plan to recover their Falcon first and second stages is a pipedream) and the Europeans are still singing the praises of Skylon (though it has been “ten years from now” for the past thirty years.) Other than those longshots, I don’t see anything near term coming down the pike that can make asteroid mining cost effective. I’m very interested in what this proposal is all about.

31. Well, he sure gave Walter a hand!

@32: Maybe if they built the mining ship in orbit? Like, make the ISS the nucleus of a drydock kind of thing and launch the ships from there?

Pipe dreams I know, but fun to speculate!

32. They’ll pretty much have to assemble the mining ship either in Low Earth Orbit or more likely at an L1 assembly point/propellant depot. But you still have to get the ship from the ground into space, and the cheapest vehicle right now is a Falcon 9 for about $50 million for 20,000 lbs. or so. That’s just too expensive to justify the investment. And even when you overcome that cost problem, you still have to find a way to bring the ore/minerals/what-have-you back to the ground. The only system with that capability at present is SpaceX’s Dragon, which can bring back a few thousand pounds. Clearly, that’s not going to work on an industrial scale.

I don’t know what this proposal to be announced tomorrow is all about, but it will be interesting to hear how they plan to overcome these problems. Maybe “mining” isn’t the right idea, maybe they are planning to recover Helium 3 from the moon and use it for Fusion Reactors? That would be dependent on someone finally making a practical fusion reactor, which would be huge news all by itself. But there have been no rumors to that effect, and you’d think there would be by now if someone had finally cracked that nut.

31, 33

Ha, ha, ha. Thorny. Corny puns belong to our beloved Harry Ballz.

Fringe’s “Letters of Transit” was cool but it left you hanging. Next week’s episode seems to have nothing to do with Walter and Peter’s mission. So we don’t know if they succeed or fail. That kind of risk, loses viewers. Controversial.

John Noble who plays Walter is great on Science channel’s Dark Matters. Just saw the show about Einstein’s brain, the Kecksburg UFO (what was the military looking for) and American-Soviet psychic experiments. It’s another cool show.

Teen Entries — One of the greatest failures of NASA is to self-promote in a way that instills a sense of wonder, accomplishment, and/or firstness. Without that, the American taxpayer rightfully wonders what the billions are going for?

27 – In her book Packing for Mars, Mary Roach includes a brief mention of an idea that NASA shot down: a one-way trip. Much cheaper to get there without the worry of how to get back. That is… See Mars and die. NASA, obviously, didn’t want to knowingly send astronauts to their deaths. Here’s the kicker: Roach says there were plenty of astronauts who wanted to volunteer. Some were older, say in their 60’s. They knew fully well that not only was there no return, but that with the thinner atmosphere, they’d be dead from the effects of radiation many years prematurely. They might last five or ten years up there. They STILL WANTED to volunteer, since it was their lifetime goal. Again, NASA said no way and killed the planning in an early stage.

Good book, btw. Packing for Mars also offers a detailed debunking of p*rn allegedly shot in weightlessness.

# 37.


If I were in my ’60s and in good shape? I’d sure as hell want to. Many explorers throughout history often set sail knowing that their voyage was a one-way ticket. Boldness has been bred out of the human genome in many of us these days. We’re more concerned with safety and comfort than fulfilling our dreams…

# 35.


I agree!
A lot of folks on the blogosphere write about helium 3 mining on the moon as if fusion reactors were a practical reality already. I take it most of them had seen 2009’s (IMO brilliant) movie, “Moon” and just assumed the tech was already here, awaiting ‘fuel’ from the moon. Maybe Duncan Jones can make a prequel showing the slow, painstaking development of the helium 3 fusion reactors…. ;-D

I wonder if the Vikings experienced the same sort of malaise after their explorers returned from the New World (Vinland) and failed to establish a permanent colony there—I mean, here.

Was Leif Ericsson their Neil Armstrong? Were there Vikings hitching rides with Columbus a few hundred years later?

I’m kidding, of course. But historical ironies are too great to ignore.

# 40. Vultan~

Makes you wonder how much the Vikings had to pay for a seat on Columbus’ ships (I’m sure the Italian and Spanish governments jacked up the prices, too). ;-P

Also kidding, of course…. ;-D

37… There really is no chance whatsoever that NASA would go with a one-way trip like that. Congress would never fund a one-way trip, and it locks Congress into perpetually sending supply ships to Mars, so they can’t kill off the program without killing the astronauts. It just isn’t feasible for a government run program. However, a commercial interest might go for it.

If you ever watch the HBO miniseries “From the Earth to the Moon” this same idea is brought up. “Send the astronaut on a one-way trip, and then just keep sending him supplies until the return vehicle is ready,” two guys propose to NASA. The idea is immediately dismissed.

39. Sebastian… well, it will certainly be interesting tomorrow. Are we on the verge of a bombshell announcement that has somehow been kept very quiet?

@ 33 “Well, he sure gave Walter a hand!”


Those evacuated tube transports would be great in the US right now; the two worst airlines in the world, American and US Scareways, are looking to merge.

The experience will be like flying in a roadside Hess Station men’s room stall while paying $9.95 for a cardboard sandwich.

El Popocatepetl….is a good setting for the Film.

That underground tube train covering the U.S. was actually in the Gene Rodenberry-produced “Genesis II” TV movie in the mid-1970’s.

ETT should be a priority. May the F=ma be with you

@ 47.

That did seem familiar. Now I remember. Thanks.

@ 47. Platos’s Stepchild’s Sister’s Best Friend’s Roomate –
“That underground tube train covering the U.S. was actually in the Gene Rodenberry-produced “Genesis II” TV movie in the mid-1970’s.”

Here’s the tube transport (more convincly than in the animation above) about 2 minutes into “Genesis II”: