December 7, 2010

Are Solar Sails the Future of Space Travel? (Source: Discovery)
In order to traverse Earth's oceans, humans learned to navigate its winds and currents. As we look to our future amid the stars, solar sail technology gives us a similar opportunity: the chance to hitch a ride on light. The concept behind the solar sail dates back to the 16th century. Famed astronomer Johannes Kepler noticed that comet tails always point away from the sun, implying that sunlight itself was pushing them around like cosmic windsocks.

Kepler suspected the presence of the solar breeze that modern spacecraft such as NASA's NanoSail-D and Japan's IKAROS sail on. Scientists now know that sunlight is little more than a stream of photons, or tiny particles of light. Photons don't possess mass, but they do boast linear momentum. When they bounce off a reflective surface, they push against that surface. Click here to read the article. (12/7)

Editorial: The Final For-Profit Frontier (Source: Orange County Register)
There's a chance that the first launch into orbit of a privately owned spaceship, which could be attempted this week, will fail. If it does, however, another launch will succeed, and the transition of space travel from a strictly government endeavor to one dominated by private companies will have advanced an important step. It is a welcome step for those who understand that commercialization of space travel is essential to bringing on a time when ordinary human beings, not just the super-rich, can venture into space.

SpaceX, headquartered in Hawthorne, is scheduled to launch its Dragon capsule, designed with the idea of being adapted to carry people, into orbit. Founded in 2002 by PayPal co-founder Elon Musk, SpaceX has a $1.6 billion contract with NASA to conduct 12 resupply missions to the International Space Station after the announced end of flights of NASA's space shuttle. Another company, Orbital Sciences Corp., has a similar contract.

Spaceships designed by aviation pioneer Burt Rutan for entrepreneur Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic have achieved suborbital flights and are scheduled to offer individuals flights just beyond the edge of Earth's atmosphere. Space tourism will be the province of the wealthy at first, but innovation, competition and amortization of development costs are expected to bring the price down over time. (12/7)

New JPL Workers Shed Training Wheels for Rocket Launch (Source: JPL)
Less than three years after obtaining college degrees, a group of early-career employees at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory can now add "rocket launch" to their resumes. Recent graduates who work for JPL launched a sounding rocket 120 kilometers (75 miles) above Earth's surface on Dec. 6. The rocket flew from the U.S. Army's White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, with four cameras on board. The cameras recorded real-time ground imagery throughout the flight. Those data will be compared with existing maps to develop terrain-modeling algorithms. This project will improve precision landing for future missions to Mars and other locations.

Members of the Phaeton group, a rapid-training program for early career hires at JPL, submitted a proposal to NASA's Hands-on-Project Experience. The program, created by NASA in November 2008, aims to give rising engineers, scientists and others the opportunity to move a small mission from concept to launch to post-flight analysis. In May 2009, the Phaeton group was selected to move forward with their proposed project, called Terrain Relative Navigation and Employee Development, which they refer to as Trained. (12/7)

Investigation on Russia's failed launch to be completed by Dec. 17 (Source: Xinhua)
The investigation on the failed launch of three Glonass-M navigation satellites on Dec. 5 will be completed before Dec. 17, authorities said. "The commission's report must be agreed upon by all concerned agencies, including the Defense Ministry," Perminov added. Russian deputy prime minister Sergei Ivanov said the failure of rocket booster may be behind the failed launch, and "the satellites themselves have nothing to do with this failure." (12/7)

Fuel Overload Blamed for Proton Launch Failure (Source: Voice of Russia)
Fuel overload has been singled out as the prime reason for Sunday’s failed launch of the Proton-M carrier rocket that was supposed to deliver satellites for the completion of Russia's GLONASS satellite navigation system. This preliminary conclusion made by a government commission probing the matter explains why the carrier’s speed was about 100 meters per second below normal at the moment the three satellites separated from the DM-3 booster. (12/7)

Russia Probes Navigation System Spending After Crash (Source: AFP)
Russia launched a probe Tuesday into whether the money assigned to create a satellite navigation rival to the US GPS system was being wisely spent after the latest launch ended in failure. The Russian prosecutor general's office said it was following instructions from President Dmitry Medvedev to investigating any potential misappropriation of the Glonass funds. Investigators also said that they would announce what had caused the failure by December 20. (12/7)

Spare Glonass Satellites Activated (Source: RIA Novosti)
Russia has switched on two reserve Glonass-M satellites to replace the ones that were lost when a rocket deviated off course on Sunday, the head of Russia's state run space corporation Anatoly Perminov said. Russia currently has a total of 26 Glonass satellites in orbit, with 20 of then in service. The Proton-M carrier rocket, which blasted off from the Baikonur space center in Kazakhstan on Sunday, deviated from its course by 8 degrees, resulting in the loss of a DM-3 booster with three Glonass-M satellites satellites. (12/7)

Iran Manned Space Program On Course (Source: PressTV)
Iranian Communications and Information Technology Minister Reza Taqipour says Iran is on the right track in its plan to launch its first manned mission to space after completing the study phase. “The initial steps for the plan have been taken, and the study phase on the definition of subsystems, sub-projects, costs, and what projects need to be developed toward that end, has been conducted, which needs to be submitted to the Supreme Council on Space,” the Mehr news agency quoted Taqipour as saying on Monday.

He added that the next steps of the plan will be accelerated once the supervising body approves the programs. Taqipour noted that additional studies are underway at Iranian universities for the training programs of astronauts and other aspects of space travel. According to Iranian officials, in 2009 the country's Aerospace Organization kicked off a 12-year project to send an astronaut into space by 2021. In August, President Ahmadinejad said Iran had reviewed the space mission and decided to launch a manned shuttle into space by 2017. (12/7)

Japan's Akatsuki Venus Probe Goes AWOL (Source: Sky & Telescope)
Last night I watched a live feed from the control center for Japan's latest interplanetary adventure. The camera showed a room at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency's Sagamihara center crammed with computer monitors, flight engineers, and project officials. A spacecraft named Akatsuki was about to fire its braking rocket and go into orbit around Venus. The craft radioed that a 12-minute-long burn had begun as planned, then it slipped behind the planet and out of radio contact for 22 minutes.

I don't speak Japanese, but the worried faces and lack of high-fives in the control room spoke volumes as the minutes ticked by. Akatsuki didn't reestablish its radio link after supposedly emerging from behind the planet — and when a transmission finally arrived it was sporadic and came via an emergency antenna. A JAXA official said the spacecraft is functioning but has put itself in a standby mode. It's also spinning slowly, every 10 minutes, and radio contact is possible only for 40 seconds at a time through a low-rate backup loop. (12/7)

Report Criticizes KSC's Handling of Excess Shuttle Program Computers (Source: Florida Today)
Staff at Kennedy Space Center, among other NASA centers, inappropriately released sensitive NASA data by failing to properly clean computers the shuttle program is getting rid of, according to a report released today by NASA’s inspector general. Click here to read the article. (12/7)

NASA's 'Arsenic Bug' Claim Now the Subject of Controversy (Sources: Huntsville Times, Guardian)
Claims by a NASA scientist last week to have discovered a microbe that substitutes arsenic for phosphorus in its DNA have encountered pushback from at least one scientist. NASA planetary scientists hailed the findings, published in the journal Nature, as opening the door to new possibilities for life in the universe. Now, however, a blog post by University of British Columbia researcher Rosie Redfield has questioned Wolfe-Simon's work.

NASA has dismissed the criticism, but the story isn't going away. Here are some remarks from one scientist's blog: "Almost unanimously, they think the NASA scientists have failed to make their case. 'It would be really cool if such a bug existed,' said San Diego State University's Forest Rohwer, a microbiologist who looks for new species of bacteria and viruses in coral reefs. But, he added, 'none of the arguments are very convincing on their own.' That was about as positive as the critics could get. 'This paper should not have been published,' said Shelley Copley of the University of Colorado." (12/7)

No Mystery Surrounding Newly Returned Space Plane, Air Force Insists (Source: National Defense)
After 244 days, nine hours and 24 minutes in space, the Air Force’s X-37 B Orbital Test Vehicle landed in California on Dec. 3. During the nine months in orbit, there was much conjecture about the classified payload and the so-called space plane’s intended purpose. Could it be used to deliver weapons to space?

Richard McKinney, undersecretary of the Air Force for space programs, insisted that the new spacecraft will be used to conduct experiments on cutting edge technologies that can be returned to Earth where researchers can thoroughly examine them. Earth-bound programs have the ability to test in an operational environment, then look at components to see how they fared. The Air Force has only been able to do that with space systems on NASA’s space shuttle, which normally flies for a little more than two weeks, he said. The OTVs can fly for up to 270 days. (12/7)

Draft Spending Bill Increases NASA’s Budget by $186M for 2010 (Source: Space News)
Draft appropriations legislation circulating in the U.S. House of Representatives would give NASA a slight budget boost in 2011, including funds to begin building a heavy-lift launch vehicle, continue development of the Orion crew capsule and nurture commercial crew and cargo delivery services for the international space station.

The draft bill, part of a larger spending package that if approved would fund federal agencies through Sept. 30, would provide $18.91 billion to NASA in the current fiscal year, roughly $90 million less than U.S. President Barack Obama requested for NASA, but nearly $190 million above NASA's 2010 level. NASA would be directed to spend $1.8 billion on initiating development of a heavy-lift launch vehicle this year; $1.2 billion for the Orion crew capsule; and $1.8 billion for space shuttle orbiters (without calling for an additional shuttle mission).

Orbital Sciences and SpaceX would share some portion of a $300 million augmentation to NASA's COTS cargo launch program, representing a 62 percent increase. And like the Senate appropriations measure, the draft resolution would provide $250 million for the commercial crew program, just half of the $500 million Obama requested and some $50 million less than the authorization measure recommended. (12/7)

House Bill Guts KSC Improvement Plan, Adds Wallops (Source: Space News)
The draft House appropriation for NASA guts the president’s $429 million request to fund a 21st Century Launch Complex initiative to modernize range infrastructure at the Cape Canaveral Spaceport. However, the draft bill does direct that the $825 million included for space shuttle expenses also be spent on efforts to improve Kennedy Space Center for civil and nondefense purposes.

The draft bill also directs the money be applied at other NASA flight facilities “currently scheduled to launch cargo” to the space station, possibly a reference to NASA’s Wallops Island Flight Facility in Virginia, where Orbital Sciences is building a COTS launch site for its Taurus 2 rocket and Cygnus cargo vessel. In addition, the extra space shuttle money could be used to build ground support facilities for the new heavy-lift launch vehicle and Orion crew capsule. (12/7)

Space Chief Upbeat on Jobs (Source: Florida Today)
While the space industry will shed up to 6,000 jobs in the next several years, Space Florida President Frank DiBello believes that within three years, up to half of those lost jobs can be replaced by the completion of deals that are under way. "We're looking at somewhere between 2,000 and 3,000 (jobs) that I can see," DiBello said. DiBello also met with Governor-elect Rick Scott on Monday and said he foresees no problems working with the businessman turned politician. "He listened," DiBello said.

DiBello said Space Florida's unique financing assistance ability can sweeten the pot to lure for prospective industries. But the agency is struggling to lure new business to the state against a background of uncertainty at NASA. DiBello noted that Florida competes against Kentucky, Alabama and Mississippi, which have made generous offerings to high-tech industries. "They're throwing cash at deals."

Republicans could oppose the Obama Administration's generous plan for commercial space development and a heavy-lift rocket simply to hurt the President's chances for re-election. However, DiBello said he has tried to keep the space budget bi-partisan by reminding both parties of the importance of Florida in national elections. "If they hurt Florida, we're going to make them pay," he said. (12/7)

Florida’s Next Governor Sees Shuttle’s End as “Opportunity” (Source: Space Politics)
The impending retirement of the space shuttle program—-now no sooner than mid-2011 assuming STS-135 is added to the manifest-—has been feared by local and state officials because of the thousands of layoffs that will result and the concomitant impact on the region’s economy.

“You can look at it as a problem or an opportunity. The opportunity is, look at all the talent that is now going to be freed up to be part of companies,” said Florida Gov.-elect Rick Scott, at the beginning of a week-long swing through the state to talk about jobs. “We’re going to put a lot of effort into talking to companies that make sense for that workforce to work there. We’re going to talk to people all around the world to relocate plants, open plants there, because we have a ready work force.”

Meanwhile, state Senate President Mike Haridopolos, who represents the Space Coast, worried last month that “20,000 jobs” would be lost (which would be on the very high end of estimates); Haridopolos, a Republican and potential 2012 US senate candidate, put the blame on current Senator Bill Nelson. (12/7)

Posey Plans Second Entrepreneur Summit (Source: Brevard Workforce)
Senator Bill Posey is hosting a second Entrepreneur Summit on January 11 to continue to bring together various entrepreneurs from across the Space Coast region to showcase their innovative technologies to potential investors and to the public. Companies interested in presenting must complete and submit an application no later than December 12, 2010. Click here for an application. (12/7)

Commercial Human Spaceflight Moves Forward (But the Debate over It Does Not) (Source: National Review)
If the SpaceX Falcon-9 flight is successful, it will be an interesting news story for a day or so, but it won’t much affect the often meretricious debate that has been going on all year over NASA’s new policy for commercial spaceflight. If it fails, on the other hand, the failure will be seized upon by the detractors of NASA’s new direction as somehow proof that private companies aren’t up to the job.

One of the frustrating things about that “debate” has been the false anointing of SpaceX as the poster child and sole representative of commercial human spaceflight. The debate often ignores Boeing's potential plans for a crew capsule, to go up on either the United Launch Alliance’s Atlas-5 or Delta-4 rockets, or SpaceX’s Falcon-9. Neither is mentioned Sierra Nevada Corp.’s “Dream Chaser” spaceplane, also planned to go up on an Atlas. This is because, unlike SpaceX, it is a lot harder for demagogues like Alabama’s Sen. Richard Shelby to characterize Boeing and ULA as “hobbyists in a garage.”

Their existence remains inconvenient for those who want to continue to denigrate American private enterprise in favor of good old-fashioned government-fed pork, as the so-called “conservative” Republican delegation from Utah did a couple weeks ago. Beyond that, it won’t be at all shocking if the very first flight of a new spacecraft doesn’t work. That’s why we have test flights — to understand new systems and wring the bugs out of them. (12/7)

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