November 30, 2010

Secret Mini-Shuttle Due for Landing as Soon as Friday (Source:
The U.S. Air Force's clandestine X-37B space plane will glide back to Earth as soon as Friday and land on a concrete runway in California. The X-37B spacecraft, also called the Orbital Test Vehicle, has been circling Earth since April 22 conducting classified tests while under the watchful eye of amateur observers on the ground. The two-paragraph statement issued by the 30th Space Wing at Vandenberg Air Force Base says the "exact landing date and time will depend on technical and weather considerations," but it is expected between Friday and Monday. (11/30)

Launch Companies Beg NASA: Save the Space Planes! (Source: WIRED)
In separate, closed-door meetings, reps from two different companies asked NASA's Dave Huntsman about the X-34s’ status. “Most of us didn’t even know the X-34s still existed, since it had been years since program cancellation,” the engineer mused. Propelled by industry’s interest, Huntsman placed a few calls and located the X-34s on the bombing range.

Sensing the renewed interest, in January the Air Force voluntarily towed the X-34s off the range, a tedious, weeks-long undertaking complicated by mud and distance. To pay for inspections, Huntsman and a growing band of allies counted on a phenomenon unique to government budget cycles. “With the Dryden guys, I proposed to my boss...that if any funds freed up in September 2010 [as fiscal year was ending] — not an uncommon occurrence — that we take AFRL up on their offer to fund half of a $400,000 study to determine the exact status of the vehicles. (11/30)

NASA Extends ATK Solid Rocket Motor Contract (Source: NASA)
NASA has signed a $42.1 million contract modification to space shuttle reusable solid rocket motor manufacturer ATK Launch Systems to provide continued prelaunch through postlaunch support from Oct. 1, 2010, through Dec. 31, 2011. The modification is based on an extension to the current Space Shuttle Program launch schedule, which shifted the last two scheduled missions into fiscal year 2011.

The extension also covers the completion of contract activities associated with the processing of flight hardware after the last scheduled shuttle flight, STS-134, and postflight activities for cleaning and preserving the reusable solid rocket motors. This modification brings the total potential value of the cost-plus-award fee/incentive fee contract to $4.13 billion. The principal location of the work to be performed is ATK Launch Systems Inc. in Brigham City. (11/30)

Will Space Tourists Fly Next Year? (Source: MSNBC)
Virgin Galactic's billionaire founder, Richard Branson, says that "we're about 12 months away" from flying paying passengers to the edge of outer space. But there are huge hurdles between now and then -- such as actually putting the spaceship through rocket-powered tests. Branson delivered his latest prediction for the start of Virgin Galactic's commercial service on NBC's TODAY show, repeating his intention to get on board for the first operational flight of the SpaceShipTwo rocket plane, along with other members of his family. (11/30)

Has NASA Found Life Near Saturn? (Source: Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
NASA has called a 2 p.m. news conference for Thursday "to discuss an astrobiology finding that will impact the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life." Speculation is growing that NASA has discovered life on one of Saturn's moons. The space agency did not release more details, but the list of news conference participants is telling, according to blogger Jason Kottke.

The group includes Pamela Conrad, author of a paper on geology and life on Mars; and James Elser, an Arizona State University professor involved in a NASA-funded program that emphasizes looking at the chemistry of environments where life evolves. "So, if I had to guess at what NASA is going to reveal on Thursday, I'd say that they've discovered arsenic on Titan and maybe even detected chemical evidence of bacteria utilizing it for photosynthesis (by following the elements)," Kottke wrote. (11/30)

New Particle Links Dark Matter with Missing Antimatter (Source: Physics World)
Physicists in the US and Canada have proposed a new particle that could solve two important mysteries of modern physics: what is dark matter and why is there much more matter than antimatter in the universe? The yet-to-be-discovered "X" particle is expected to decay mostly to normal matter, whereas its antiparticle is expected decay mostly to "hidden" antimatter. The team claims that its existence in the early universe could explain why there is more matter than antimatter in the universe – and that dark matter is in fact hidden antimatter. (11/30)

Advice to Astronauts: Eat More Fish (Source: Discovery)
Nutritionists have some advice for astronauts worried about bone loss: Eat more fish -- and while you're at it, skip the salt. Studies show strong ties between how much fish astronauts eat while in orbit and the amount of bone they were able to preserve, says NASA nutritionist Scott Smith. Astronauts typically lose between 1 to 1.5 percent of their bone mass per month in orbit. A postmenopausal woman, by comparison, loses that amount of bone in a year. On Earth, the condition often leads to osteoporosis, which leaves bones susceptible to fractures and breaks.

Whether a diet rich in fish can help mitigate bone loss for the terrestrial-bound has not been determined, but Smith finds it highly likely. Smith and colleagues credit the omega-3 fatty acids present in some fish with helping to stem bone loss. A second study on subjects confined to bed rest -- intended to simulate the muscle atrophy and other conditions astronauts experience in weightlessness -- found similar results. (11/30)

Discovery Fuel Tank Analysis Continues (Source: Florida Today)
Launch pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center is quiet as shuttle Discovery awaits a decision about whether it can make another launch attempt this year. Engineers continue to study an area on the external tank where metal support beams were repaired after cracking earlier this month. They're analyzing the likelihood that more of the beams called "stringers" could crack when the shuttle is fueled again, potentially dislodging dangerous chunks of insulating foam toward the orbiter during ascent, or if the tank is safe to fly "as is." Editor's Note: There's growing speculation that this launch could slip to February. (11/30)

Strong Showing on Anti-Earmark Vote (Source: Politico)
Thirty-nine senators voted Tuesday in support of a three-year moratorium on appropriations earmarks, the strongest showing ever by opponents of the current process and a potential game changer in the year-end budget debate. The ban did not pass, but it did attract impressive bi-partisan support. The current Senate leadership will have to decide now whether to strip out or weaken draft language in an omnibus spending bill that currently sets aside billions for home-state projects. With nearly 40 senators supporting the moratorium, the Appropriations Committee leadership faces the threat of endless delays if some accommodation is not reached. (11/30)

Space Energy Group Issues Progress Report (Source: Space Energy)
Space Energy is preparing for a historic gathering of its Technical Team & Board of Advisors – the world´s leading Space-Based Solar Power (SBSP) authorities - to discuss the strategic objectives and outcomes of the company's planned Space-Based Solar Power Concept & Systems Definition Study. "This will be an immensely important and imperative historic study; essential to the direction we take in terms of the pathways to demonstration and thereafter to commercialization."

Space Energy also is pushing ahead with discussions and negotiations with key government officials and has reached an initial consensus for the organization and co-hosting of a clean energy summit, which will include Space Based Solar Power as one of the major topics of discussion. Click here for more. Editor's Note: Space Energy has a subsidiary office in Fort Lauderdale. (11/29)

It's The Age Of "Aquarius" For NASA Astronauts (Source: CBS4)
In a few weeks NASA's Space Shuttle Discovery is set to take off. On board will be several astronauts who have been in the Florida Keys for training. They spent weeks working, eating, and sleeping beneath the ocean in America's inner space station called Aquarius. Acquarius is the only manned underwater research station in the world. Aquarius is owned by NOAA, but operated by the University of North Carolina. Mitchell Tartt with NOAA equates Aquarius to an underwater recreational vehicle. "It's basically the size of a small airstream or a school bus," said Tartt. "And you are in there with six people." (11/30)

Space Coast Economic Development Chief Lands Seat on Scott Transition Team (Source: Miami Herald)
Lynda Weatherman, president and CEO fo the Economic Development Commission of Florida's Space Coast, has been selected to serve on a 76-member gubernatorial transition team focused on economic development and regulatory reform. Governor-elect Rick Scott will be inaugurated on January 4. (11/30)

Virgin Galactic Keeps Mum On Orbital Spaceflight Ambitions (Source:
While Virgin Galactic's public sights are set on offering suborbital space tourist treks on its SpaceShipTwo passenger ships, the company is already quietly eyeing the next step: orbital space travel. Virgin Galactic founder and president Sir Richard Branson publicly admitted the company's orbital aims last month at the dedication of the Spaceport America facility under construction in New Mexico. But he and other Virgin execs are keeping mum on the details.

"Obviously, we want to move on to orbital after we've got suborbital under our belts, and maybe even before that," Branson said. While suborbital spaceflight is no cakewalk, achieving orbital space travel is much more difficult. Staying in space for a full orbit requires a significant velocity boost above that required for suborbital trips. The increase in speed requires a corresponding increase in energy, which means a lot more fuel. This extra fuel would push the spacecraft's weight up significantly, thus requiring greater thrust to get off the ground.

Furthermore, the return trip presents a challenge. The higher up a craft starts its descent from, the more it will accelerate as it travels back to Earth. And when a fast-moving spaceship plunges through our planet's atmosphere, it creates incredible friction and heat. Orbital spacecraft require stronger heat shields to withstand this blast than the comparatively slow-moving suborbital craft. (11/29)

Bolden Treads Softly On China, Other Issues (Source: Aviation Week)
The Chinese space officials who NASA Administrator Charles Bolden met in Beijing will not be coming to the U.S. for a reciprocal visit in December, but there may be a visit in 2011. Nor is Anatoly Permanov, the head of the Russian space agency, likely to get much traction soon with a list of possible cooperative projects he discussed with Bolden in Washington Nov. 18. As with China, Russia will have to wait until the U.S. political climate becomes more stable.

In a rare one-on-one interview with a U.S. reporter, Bolden tiptoed around a range of sensitive issues as he looks for bipartisan support in the 112th Congress. Deeper engagement with foreign space powers will have to go through the cumbersome interagency review process, he said, while NASA must complete its own assessment of how far over budget the James Webb Space Telescope has become before deciding how to tackle the problem.

But one thing he made clear, despite some evidence to the contrary. “I have all the support that I want from my higher command, which is the president of the United States.” Bolden says he has been working Capitol Hill to win support in the next session of Congress for an appropriation to go with the compromise authorization bill President Barack Obama signed in October. (11/29)

Construction Delay at Spaceport America (Source: NewSpace Journal)
Spaceport America officials have stopped work on one of the facility’s buildings until as late as next spring in order to reevaulate the design of its interior. The Air Rescue Fire Facility (ARFF), a building that will be the spaceport’s fire station as well as host the spaceport’s administrative offices, was 70-percent complete last week when officials ordered work on it halted. Rick Homans, executive director of the New Mexico Spaceport Authority, said the work stoppage was designed to allow them reevaulate the interior of the dome-shaped ARFF.

“We want to make sure the interior design and functionality works for us and that it is also in sync with the overall look and design of the other components of Spaceport America.” He said that reevaulation would be complete by the end of the first quarter of 2011, at which point work on the building would resume. Any additional costs incurred by the redesign would be “minimal”, he said. (11/29)

U.S. Satellite Internet Leaps Forward with New Spacecraft in 2012 (Source: TechNewsDaily)
Broadband Internet delivered via satellite stands to get a big boost in 2012 when HughesNet, one of two major providers in the United States, launches a next-generation spacecraft. The new satellite, named Jupiter, will be able to transfer data faster than the company's current dedicated Spaceway satellite and an array of transponders leased on other orbiting craft.

Speed and subscription prices are not yet set, but even a potential download rate of 20 megabits per second (mbps) would be 10 times the current rate and should be available for comparable prices, according to statements from HughesNet. All this would be good news for the more than 10 million Americans who lack access to high-speed Internet, which is usually defined internationally as greater than 256 kilobits per second.

Experts Question Usefulness of Air Force's Robotic X-37B Space Plane (Source:
New observations of the Air Force's secretive unmanned X-37B space plane have put the spacecraft's classified mission back in the limelight. While many ponder the exact nature of such a vehicle, some experts have already gone on record questioning whether a robotic space plane is even needed.

Cheaper alternatives exist for just about every mission capability that the X-37B robotic space plane might possess, according to an analysis by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) released during the spacecraft's current mission. The organization's experts want the Obama administration and Congress to review the U.S. commitment to a space plane program. (11/29)

Unimaginative Union of Concerned Scientists Does it Again (Source: Behind the Black)
According to the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), the reusable X-37B — in orbit at the moment and expected to return to Earth in the near future — has no compelling use. “It’s hard to think of what could make that mission compelling,” [UCS scientist Laura] Grego told “It doesn’t protect you from antiaircraft fire, and the element of surprise doesn’t really work in your favor if you’re launching on Atlas V [rocket].”

In reading this article, it is fascinating how completely unimaginative the scientists from the Union of Concerned Scientists seem. Nor do I find this surprising. For the last few decades this organization has opposed almost every new aerospace engineering project that might actually have made possible the human exploration of space. It’s as if these scientists feared new ideas and grand achievement. Sadly, the UCS had great influence with policy makers in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, and thus helped limit the American government’s space program capabilities during that time period. (11/29)

Murder! Intrigue! Astronomers? (Source: New York Times)
When Danish and Czech scientists exhumed the remains of the astronomer Tycho Brahe in Prague this month, they dug up much more than some bones and hairs. They found something that has eluded astronomers for thousands of years: a story with major box-office potential. It’s “Amadeus” meets “Da Vinci Code” meets “Hamlet,” featuring a deadly struggle for the secret of the universe between Tycho, the swashbuckling Danish nobleman with a gold-and-silver prosthetic nose, and the not-yet-famous Johannes Kepler, his frail, jealous German assistant. The story also includes an international hit man, hired after a Danish prince becomes king and suspects Brahe of sleeping with his mother (and maybe being his father!).

The archaeologist leading the team cautions that even if they confirm suspicions that Brahe was poisoned by mercury, that wouldn’t necessarily prove he was murdered, much less identify the killer. Fortunately for Tycho and Kepler, Hollywood has never let a lack of data get in the way of a plot. There’s no evidence that Antonio Salieri poisoned Mozart, and look what the movie “Amadeus” did for their album sales. (11/29)

Dark Jupiter May Haunt Edge of Solar System (Source: WIRED)
A century of comet data suggests a dark, Jupiter-sized object is lurking at the solar system’s outer edge and hurling chunks of ice and dust toward Earth. “We’ve accumulated 10 years more data, double the comets we viewed to test this hypothesis,” said planetary scientist John Matese of the University of Louisiana. “Only now should we be able to falsify or verify that you could have a Jupiter-mass object out there.”

In 1999, Matese and colleague Daniel Whitmire suggested the sun has a hidden companion that boots icy bodies from the Oort Cloud, a spherical haze of comets at the solar system’s fringes, into the inner solar system where we can see them. In a new analysis of observations dating back to 1898, Matese and Whitmire confirm their original idea: About 20 percent of the comets visible from Earth were sent by a dark, distant planet. Click here to read the article. (11/29)

Earth Oceans Were Homegrown (Source: Science)
Where did Earth's oceans come from? Astronomers have long contended that icy comets and asteroids delivered the water for them during an epoch of heavy bombardment that ended about 3.9 billion years ago. But a new study suggests that Earth supplied its own water, leaching it from the rocks that formed the planet. The finding may help explain why life on Earth appeared so early, and it may indicate that other rocky worlds are also awash in vast seas.

Our planet has always harbored water. The rubble that coalesced to form Earth contained trace amounts—tens to hundreds of parts per million—of the stuff. But scientists didn't believe that was enough to create today's oceans, and thus they looked to alien origins for our water supply. Geologist Linda Elkins-Tanton of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge didn't think researchers needed to look that far. (11/29)

No comments: