November 25, 2010

Deficit Hit Men Target NASA's Post-Shuttle Plans (Source: AP)
NASA's effort to farm out astronauts' space station trips to private companies over the next decade is under fire again, this time by federal deficit hit men. Spaceflight vendors stand to lose $1.2 billion in NASA funding in 2015 under a proposal by the co-chairmen of President Obama's bipartisan deficit commission. Eliminating federal funding for commercial rocket rides is just one of dozens of ideas put forth earlier this month.

NASA isn't overly worried, for now. Neither are the entrepreneurs who are counting on government dollars to hurry their spacecraft and rockets along; they're used to the Earth-mired roller coaster ride. Besides, few if any observers expect the proposed cut to muster enough support. But the fact that commercial spaceflight was targeted, underscores the vulnerability and controversy of the Obama administration's plan to get American astronauts to the International Space Station via commercial craft.

"We're at the point now where it's either commercial human spaceflight or no human spaceflight in the U.S.," said SpaceX CEO Elon Musk. SpaceX is one of several companies vying to deliver astronauts or supplies to the space station, freeing NASA up to focus on grander deep-space adventures. Unless they come up with safe and reliable means of transport, NASA will be forced to continue buying seats on Russian Soyuz spacecraft at a cost of tens of millions of dollars — per person. (11/25)

Private Companies Vying in $$$ Race to Space (Source: AP)
Several companies are in the latest race to space, vying for a chance to fly cargo and even astronauts to the International Space Station once NASA's shuttle program ends. Click here for a brief look at each of them. (11/25)

Simulation Casts Doubt on Origins of Lunar Water (Source: New Scientist)
The mystery of how the moon got its surface water has just got deeper, following the failure of an attempt to replicate the mechanism that was thought to produce it. Three separate space missions last year reported detecting a sheen of water only molecules thick over large parts of the moon's surface. Many planetary scientists assumed the water was created when particles from the solar wind hit lunar soils, but this idea has now been thrown into doubt.

"The solar wind cannot produce water in sufficient quantities to account for the results of the three missions that observed it," says Raúl Baragiola, a member of the team at University of Virginia, Charlottesville, that tried to reproduce this effect in the lab. (11/25)

Saturn Moon Rhea's Surprise: Oxygen-Rich Atmosphere (Source:
Saturn's second-largest moon Rhea has a wispy atmosphere with lots of oxygen and carbon dioxide, a new study has found. NASA's Cassini spacecraft detected Rhea's atmosphere during a close flyby of the frozen moon in March. The discovery marks the first time an oxygen-rich atmosphere has been found on a Saturn satellite. (11/25)

Early Universe Recreated in LHC Was Superhot Liquid (Source: New Scientist)
The early universe was an extremely dense and superhot liquid, according to the surprise first findings of the ALICE experiment at the Large Hadron Collider near Geneva, Switzerland. The experiment to probe the early moments of the universe started up on Nov. 7, smashing together the nuclei of lead atoms inside the LHC's circular tunnel to produce incredibly dense and hot fireballs of subatomic particles at over 10 trillion degrees.

The idea behind ALICE is to recreate the exotic, primordial "soup of particles" known as quark-gluon plasma that appeared microseconds after the universe's birth. Gluons and quarks went on to become the constitutive "bricks" of neutrons and protons inside atomic nuclei. Many models have suggested that the flow of particles from these subatomic fireworks produced in high-energy nuclear collisions should behave like a gas and not a liquid. (11/25)

Plasma Engine Aces Efficiency Tests: Set for ISS in 2014 (Source: The Register)
Officials working at a NASA spinoff company are thrilled to announce that their plasma drive technology – potentially capable of revolutionizing space travel beyond the Earth's atmosphere – has checked out A-OK in ground tests. According to the Ad Astra Rocket Company, building the Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket (VASIMR), the firm's VX-200 prototype engine has just completed its latest round of trials with flying colors.

“Many of the flight applications at the heart of our business model – orbital debris removal, satellite servicing, cargo flights to the Moon and Mars, and ejecting fast probes to the outer solar system – have required that the propulsion system achieve 60 per cent system efficiency," explains Ad Astra's Dr Tim Glover. (11/25)

China Launches Communications Satellite (Source: Xinhua)
China successfully launched a communications satellite, "Zhongxing-20A", at 12:09 a.m. Thursday from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in southwest China's Sichuan Province. "Zhongxing-20A" would help improve the country's radio and television broadcasts, said a statement from the center. The satellite was sent by a Long March 3A rocket into the preset orbit. It was the 135th launch of China's Long March series of rockets since April 24, 1970, when a Long March-1 rocket successfully sent China's first satellite, Dongfanghong-1, into space. (11/25)

How to Catch Microbes Hitchhiking to Mars (Source: WIRED)
Microbial stowaways on Mars rovers could raise false alarms for astrobiologists hoping to find evidence of life — or worse, could wipe out native Martians waiting in the soil. A new study suggests that current techniques for cleaning Mars rovers could let some of the hardiest life forms, single-celled salt-lovers and tiny animals called tardigrades, slip through.

Current techniques for sterilizing spacecraft use dry-heat treatments and chemicals similar to those that could be produced in the Martian soil. Whatever organisms survive those treatments are also the most likely things to survive and thrive once they reach Mars, Johnson said. “Everybody knows that this is not the greatest way to go about it, but that’s the way they do it,” said astrobiologist Rocco Mancinelli of the SETI Institute, a coauthor of the paper. “I personally think it has to be revamped.” (11/25)

U.S. Military Space Plane Nearing End of Design Life (Source:
Observers tracking movements of the U.S. Air Force's X-37B secretive space plane report the spacecraft is dropping altitude, a possible sign the clandestine mission is near landing as it approaches the limit of the its on-orbit capability. Air Force officials remain silent on landing and recovery plans for the reusable space plane, other than it will return to Earth at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif.

The 11,000-pound spaceship entered an orbit more than 250 miles above Earth after launch, but four significant maneuvers have since altered that trajectory, causing observers to lose track of the X-37B for several days at a time. The X-37B features landing gear for touchdown on a 15,000-foot-long runway originally built for the space shuttle. (11/25)

Einstein's 'Biggest Blunder' Turns Out to Be Right (Source:
What Einstein called his worst mistake, scientists are now depending on to help explain the universe. In 1917, Albert Einstein inserted a term called the cosmological constant into his theory of general relativity to force the equations to predict a stationary universe in keeping with physicists' thinking at the time. When it became clear that the universe wasn't actually static, but was expanding instead, Einstein abandoned the constant, calling it the '"biggest blunder" of his life.

But lately scientists have revived Einstein's cosmological constant (denoted by the Greek capital letter lambda) to explain a mysterious force called dark energy that seems to be counteracting gravity — causing the universe to expand at an accelerating pace. A new study confirms that the cosmological constant is the best fit for dark energy, and offers the most precise and accurate estimate yet of its value. (11/24)

Dark Energy on Firmer Footing (Source: Nature)
The claim that mysterious dark energy is accelerating the Universe's expansion has been placed on firmer ground, with the successful application of a quirky geometric test proposed more than 30 years ago. The accelerating expansion was first detected in 1998. Astronomers studying Type 1a supernovae, stellar explosions called "standard candles" because of their predictable luminosity, made the incredible discovery that the most distant of these supernovae appear dimmer than would be expected if the Universe were expanding at a constant rate. This suggested that some unknown force - subsequently dubbed dark energy - must be working against gravity to blow the universe apart. (11/24)

Last Chance: Where to Watch the Shuttle Launch (Source: Orlando Sentinel)
There may be one more launch, or maybe two, but one thing is for sure, when NASA does manage to get space shuttle Discovery up into space, it should be the last time we see the orbiter lift off from Kennedy Space Center. That means if you want to see one of the greatest man-made spectacles of all time, you better start planning to get out to Cape Canaveral in December or for what could be the shuttle program's finale in late February 2011. There's an outside shot there will be one final mission in summer 2011, but NASA budget woes after the election may put an end to that. But here's what we do know. Click here to read the article. (11/25)

Does Oklahoma Have Too Many State Agencies? (Source: KOTV)
Nearly 200 agencies operate in Oklahoma using state dollars. If you count all of the boards, agencies and commissions, that number jumps to 616. "We have too many state agencies, we need to cut and consolidate and get rid of a lot of the bureaucracies," said Representative David Dank, (R) Oklahoma City... The Oklahoma Space Industry Development Authority is getting $424,289 from the state. It oversees the airport and spaceport near Burns Flat which is licensed for space flights, though there are currently no space tourism flights. "That needs to go immediately," said Dank.

"We have prepared ourselves and we have built the foundation for it, so to abandon it now doesn't make any sense," said spaceport director Bill Khourie. You may remember a company called Rocketplane that got an $18 million tax credit to launch its space tourism operation there and take the public to space. That company's now bankrupt and long gone. Khourie remains confident space flights from Burns Flat will happen.

"If we had space tourism flights that originated here, people would be coming to Oklahoma from all over the world to be able to participate in these flights," said Khourie. "There's limitless things that this offers as far as research, development, transportation, it's just incredible and we are the facility that can host those operations." Khourie's three mile long, 300 foot wide runway is not the only place being questioned. (11/25)

Vegas Firm Hoping to Attract Canadian Astronauts Onto Inflatable Space Station (Source: Canadian Press)
A Las Vegas company that's been developing an inflatable space station is trying to entice Canadian astronauts to hop aboard. Bigelow Aerospace says it's working on a commercial space complex that will have the strength of a Kevlar bullet-proof vest.

A company representative was in Ottawa last weekend, delivering a keynote speech and lobbying officials at the annual summit of the Canadian Space Society. Mike Gold, a Bigelow director, called it his first attempt to reach out to the Canadian government and the space industry. He argued that the facility will offer countries a cheaper way into space within five years.

In an email Tuesday, the CSA's director of space exploration, Gilles Leclerc, said that the agency is not involved, "in any way," in the Bigelow project. But Gold expresses optimism. "I don't know how much I can say, but let me say if there wasn't the interest in Canada, I wouldn't be here," he said. (11/24)

Hardy Bugs Could Survive a Million Years on Mars (Source: New Scientist)
It was already nicknamed "Conan the Bacterium" for its ability to withstand radiation. Now it seems Deinococcus radiodurans could, in theory, survive dormant on Mars for over a million years. Scientists froze the bugs to -79 °C, the average temperature at Mars's mid-latitudes. Then they zapped them with gamma rays to simulate the dose they would receive under 30 centimeters of Martian soil over long periods of time. The team worked out that it could take 1.2 million years under these conditions to shrink a population of the bacteria to a millionth of its original size. (11/24)

Long March 7 Advances Toward Service (Source: Aviation Week)
The CALT Long March 7 medium-heavy space launcher will go into production in 2014, according to current plans, completing a new family of Chinese rockets with new fuels and engines. Sized between the Long March 5 and 6, the new rocket will offer up to 720 tons (1,590,000 lb.) of liftoff thrust from six engines fed by liquid oxygen and kerosene.

The first stage of the Long March 7 will have two YF100 engines, already known to have a thrust of 120 tons. The rocket will also have four boosters, each with one YF100. The Long March 7’s previously stated throw weight to low Earth orbit, 10-20 tons, indicates that it would be built with a variable number of boosters. The second stage will have an engine developing 18 tons of thrust.

Four more years of development will be needed before production begins. The Long March 7 is therefore not far behind the Long March 5, which is due to fly in 2014—a target which has slipped several times. The biggest engineering challenge is in maintaining a precise shape for the 5-meter-dia. (16.4-ft.) body. China’s earlier standard rocket module diameters, to be used again for the Long March 6 and 7 and the boosters for all three, are 2.25 and 3.35 meters. (11/24)

Lockheed Martin Sees 2013 Space Capsule Test Flight (Source: Wall Street Journal)
Lockheed Martin Corp.'s development of a new astronaut capsule for NASA, seemingly sidetracked by White House opposition barely a few months ago, now appears to be gaining traction with a proposed unmanned test flight as early as 2013. At least some of the incoming Republican panel chairmen and other senior GOP lawmakers may view the proposed test flight as circumventing congressional language to quickly develop a new heavy-lift NASA rocket.

Congress has adopted language strongly favoring space-shuttle derived rockets for this purpose, rather than a version of the Delta IV. Neither the House nor the Senate ever specifically gave the green light to using a Delta rocket for the planned test mission. The latest NASA plan retains Orion, but at reduced funding levels. And the lack of an approved appropriations bill covering the agency's current fiscal year threatens to further erode Lockheed Martin's revenue for Orion.

The biggest battle may be over whether a beefed-up variant of the Delta IV—-packing more power and certified safe enough to carry astronauts—-is an appropriate candidate for NASA's next-generation heavy-lift launcher. Substantial improvements would be required to meet those criteria, and many lawmakers and other NASA critics argue a faster and less expensive path would be to rely on a space-shuttle derived alternative. (11/25)

Editorial: Politics Should Not Dictate Design of NASA Rockets (Source: New Scientist)
The latest political nuisance for NASA is that senators and congressmen from Utah are trying to pressure NASA to promise that any new heavy-lift launcher it designs will include derivatives of the shuttle's solid rocket boosters (SRBs). They're even claiming that the recent NASA authorization bill that President Obama signed into law in October legally requires it. Hogwash!

The recent authorization bill does direct NASA to proceed (subject to funding) with development of a heavy-lift launcher to support future space exploration. However, nowhere does it require use of the shuttle SRBs. The farthest it goes toward that is to specify that NASA should use existing technology from the shuttle and the now-defunct Ares launchers "to the extent practicable".

Whether it is necessary, "practicable", or even desirable to use SRBs in a new man-rated heavy-lift launcher depends very much on who you ask. It seems clear who the Utah legislators have been asking – ATK, the Utah-based company that makes the shuttle SRBs and was expecting to make derivatives of them for Ares. Observers with less of a financial stake in the decision might disagree. (11/25)

I want to Do Apollo Again (Source: Transterrestrial Musings)
Rand Simberg has produced a short animation discussing the merits (or lack thereof) for developing a new NASA heavy-lift rocket. Click here to watch. (11/25)

New Launchers Require New Arrangement (Source: Aviation Week)
Europe’s launch sector is demanding changes in the Arianespace governance and shareholding structure in return for increased financial support. The European launch provider has asked for a capital injection from shareholders and a new public support mechanism to help it counter growing competition from lower-cost players and help defray the extra burden of operating two new launch vehicles—the Soyuz 2 medium lifter and Vega light booster—from its Kourou, French Guiana, spaceport.

Arianespace Chairman/CEO Jean-Yves Le Gall will not say how much the company is requesting, but industry executives say the capital injection would amount to €100 million ($136 million), perhaps spread between 2010 and 2011; and the price support program, €120 million per year. A previous support scheme for the Ariane 5, dubbed European Guaranteed Access to Space (EGAS), expires toward year-end.

The pressures on Arianespace come as France and Germany are discussing a midlife upgrade to the Ariane 5 (the Ariane 5 ME) and the vehicle—dubbed Ariane 6 but officially known as the Next-Generation Launcher (NGL). The French position, echoed by Arianespace, is that market changes, such as a gradual increase in midsize payloads that are typically paired with larger satellites in Ariane 5 missions, are eroding the Ariane 5’s dual-mission business case. (11/25)

Shuttle Discovery's Last Flight Over Christmas? (Source: San Francisco Chronicle)
Baffled by fuel tank cracks, NASA announced another prolonged launch delay for space shuttle Discovery on Wednesday and raised the prospect of a Christmastime flight. Shuttle managers refused to set a new launch date for Discovery's final flight, on hold since the beginning of November. The next launch opportunity would be Dec. 17.

"We would have liked to have found a most probable cause by now" for the cracks that were found on Discovery's fuel tank, said Bill Gerstenmaier, head of NASA's space operations. "This is turning out to be a little more complicated from an analysis standpoint." "We'll let the data drive where we're heading," he told reporters. (11/24)

Black Hole May Offer Clues to Extra Dimensions (Source: Science)
Could space have dimensions beyond the three that we all know and love? Some theories in particle physics speculate that it might, although these dimensions would be curled up in loops so small, they could probably be probed only in high-energy particle collisions. Now, however, one theorist suggests that, at least in principle, these hypothesized dimensions might reveal themselves in another subtle way. If there are extra dimensions, then the gravity from the black hole in the center of our galaxy might dramatically brighten the images of stars beyond it.

The idea rests on two assumptions. First, that space has extra dimensions. That's a central tenet of string theory, which posits that every fundamental bit of matter is really an infinitesimal string vibrating in one way or another. According to string theory, space has six extra dimensions that we don't see because they're curled and tangled up at very small length scales. (11/25)

Former NSC Official Takes Job with Orbital (Source: Space News)
Peter Marquez, former director of space policy for the White House National Security Council (NSC) and a central figure in shaping President Barack Obama’s National Space Policy, will join Orbital Sciences Corp. as vice president of strategy and planning effective Nov. 29. (11/25)

Eutelsat Still Searching for Answers in W3B Failure (Source: Space News)
Eutelsat Chief Executive Michel de Rosen on Nov. 24 said he remains confident that investigators will find the cause of the propulsion-system failure on Eutelsat’s W3B telecommunications satellite. But he conceded that, one month after the failure, the inquiry is still searching for a smoking gun. (11/25)

Cassini Back to Normal, Ready for Enceladus (Source: NASA JPL)
NASA's Cassini spacecraft resumed normal operations today, Nov. 24. All science instruments have been turned back on, the spacecraft is properly configured and Cassini is in good health. Mission managers expect to get a full stream of data during next week's flyby of the Saturnian moon Enceladus. Cassini went into safe mode on Nov. 2, when one bit flipped in the onboard command and data subsystem computer. Engineers have traced the steps taken by the computer during that time and have determined that all spacecraft responses were proper, but still do not know why the bit flipped. (11/24)

What Does SpaceX's Commercial Reentry License Mean for Space Travel? (Source: Fast Company)
Score one for would-be space travelers: SpaceX, a space transport startup bankrolled by Tesla founder Elon Musk, just became the first commercial company to receive a license to re-enter a spacecraft from orbit into Earth's atmosphere, courtesy of the FAA. Here's a statement from NASA on the new license:

"In the near term, NASA plans to be a reliable partner with U.S. industry, providing technical and financial assistance during the development phase. In the longer term, NASA plans to be a customer for these services, buying transportation services for U.S. and U.S.-designated astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS). We hope that these activities will stimulate the development of a new industry that would be available to all potential purchasers, not just the U.S. government." (11/24)

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