October 17, 2011

Billion Ton Comet May Have Missed Earth by a Few Hundred Kilometers in 1883 (Source: MIT Technology Review)
On 12th and 13th August 1883, an astronomer at a small observatory in Mexico made an extraordinary observation. José Bonilla counted some 450 objects, each surrounded by a kind of mist, passing across the face of the Sun. He published his account of this event in a French journal called L'Astronomie in 1886. Unable to account for the phenomenon, the journal editor suggested it must have been caused by birds, insects or dust obscuring Bonilla's telescope.

Today, some researchers think that Bonilla must have been seeing fragments of a comet that had recently broken up. This explains the 'misty' appearance of the pieces and why they were so close together. But there's much more that they have deduced. They point out that nobody else on the planet seems to have seen this comet passing in front of the Sun, even though the nearest observatories in those days were just a few hundred kilometers away.

They believe the fragments must have been within 600 km and 8000 km from Earth. That's just a hair's breadth. What's more, they estimate that these objects must have ranged in size from 50 to 800 meters across and that the parent comet must originally have tipped the scales at a billion tons or more, that's huge, approaching the size of Halley's comet. (10/17)

Dark Matter: Now More Mysterious Than Ever (Source: WIRED)
Astronomers have one more reason to scratch their heads over the unseen material known as dark matter. Observations of two dwarf galaxies, Fornax and Sculptor, show the dark matter within them is spread out smoothly rather than heaped into a central bulge, contradicting cosmological models.

Researchers know dark matter comprises a far greater percentage of the universe than the ordinary matter making up things like people and stars. Because of this, the distribution of dark matter determines the structure of the cosmos. Galaxies form when they are attracted to and anchored by large clumps of dark matter. Click here. (10/17)

Not Such a Stretch to Reach for the Stars (Source: New York Times)
A starship without an engine? It may seem a fantastical notion, but hardly more so than the idea of building a starship of any kind, especially with NASA’s future uncertain at best. Yet here in Orlando, not far from the launching site of the space program’s most triumphant achievements, DARPA drew hundreds this month to a symposium on the 100-Year Starship Study, which is devoted to ideas for visiting the stars.

Participants — an eclectic mix of engineers, scientists, science fiction fans, students and dreamers — explored a mix of ideas, including how to organize and finance a century-long project; whether civilization would survive, because an engine to propel a starship could also be used for a weapon to obliterate the planet; and whether people need to go along for the trip. (Alternatively, machines could build humans at the destination, perhaps tweaked to live in non-Earth-like environs.) Click here. (10/17)

Virgin Galactic's Private Spaceship Makes Safe Landing After Tense Test Flight (Source: Space.com)
A malfunction during the most recent test flight of the private spacecraft SpaceShipTwo sent the vehicle hurtling out of control until its crew could stabilize the craft for a safe landing. The issue provided some heart-stopping moments for its airborne crew and ground handlers, but also allowed the vehicle's owner, Virgin Galactic, to showcase the craft's safety features.

The commercial space plane made its 16th glide flight on Sep. 29, following a hiatus for hangar work. For the first time, SpaceShipTwo carried a three-person crew — two pilots and a flight test engineer. The glide flight lasted a brief 7 minutes and 15 seconds. "Upon release, the spaceship experienced a downward pitch rate that caused a stall of the tails. The crew followed procedure, selecting the feather mode to revert to a benign condition. The crew then de-feathered and had a nominal return to base." (10/17)

NASA's Undersea 'Asteroid' Mission Delayed by Tropical Storm (Source: Space.com)
An international astronaut crew may be ready to voyage to the bottom of the sea on a simulated trip to an asteroid, but Mother Nature - it seems - is not. The crew's planned splashdown today (Oct. 17) has been delayed to later this week due to stormy weather at the Florida dive site, NASA officials said. "It's been delayed until no earlier than Thursday [Oct. 20] because of the tropical storm they're expecting," agency spokesperson Brandi Dean said. (10/17)

Small Satellites Prompt Big Ideas for Next 25 Years (Source: Space.com)
There is big news on the small satellite front. From super-secret agencies and the U.S. military to academia and private firms, as well as world space agencies and NASA, ultra-small satellites are the big thing. In sizing up "smallsats," there are a range of classifications in the less-than-500- kilogram department, be they minisatellites, microsatellites, nanosatellites, picosatellites, palm-size CubeSats, even the diminutive Femto satellite, weighing in at less than 100 grams.

Cornell University has begun to delve into a postage stamp-size "satellite on a chip" design, called Sprite, envisioning a swarm of these tiny probes exploring planetary atmospheres for organic compounds. Call them a powerful force in the universe. Smallsats have already shown their ability to monitor disasters, study Earth’s environment and support agriculture, cartography and earth science missions. Click here. (10/17)

Laser 'Tractor Beams' Could Reel In Lost Astronauts (Source: New Scientist)
It must be an astronaut's worst nightmare: floating helplessly away from your spacecraft with no hope of rescue. Such fears could be calmed by a "tractor beam" that needs no exotic physics: a laser that vaporises small thrusters on a spacesuit to push an errant spacewalker to safety. The idea first emerged last year when John Sinko, an engineer now at Ohio State University in Newark, proposed it as a way to de-orbit space junk.

Now, working with Clifford Schlecht at the Institute for Materials, Energetics and Complexity in Greenville, South Carolina, Sinko is developing a prototype device that could save astronauts lost in space. If those space-junk thrusters were scaled down and fitted onto a spacesuit, with tubes to vent propellant away from the astronaut, you would have a way to retrieve a spacewalker who is spinning into the void. (10/17)

National Parks on the Moon? (Source: Huffington Post)
I've often fantasized about visiting the Bahamian beach where Columbus first stumbled ashore in 1492. Sadly, no one knows where that beach is. In fact, no one's even sure which island Columbus first encountered (there are three candidates). It's a pity, a disappointment, and a lost revenue source for the Bahamians.

Now, more than a half-millennium later, there are some new beachheads to mark and preserve. NASA's Office of Commercial Exploration has been concerned about protecting the landing zones where humans first walked on the Moon. For those too young to remember, there were six lunar missions between 1969 and 1972, and among these, the touchdown sites of Apollo 11 (the first) and Apollo 17 (the last) are particularly resonant.

"The biggest concern is rocket exhaust," says Margaret Race, "because landing spacecraft could sandblast everything." Another problem is accidents -- an incoming rocket could inadvertently crash. This has led to specifying a restricted "air space" above the most important places. Rovers -- rolling in for a close-up view -- could also cause problems. Not to mention the obliteration of boot prints, the taking of souvenirs, etc. (10/17)

NextGen Air-Traffic System Remains in Holding Pattern (Source: AIA)
The much touted Next Generation air-traffic-control system may still be years from implementation because of cost overruns and congressional inaction. The Department of Transportation says software development for NextGen is $300 million over budget, delaying its use for at least five years. In addition, Congress has yet to pass legislation that would fund the government's more-than $20 billion tab for the project. (10/17)

ULA Supports 20% for Air Force Launcher Competition (Source: Washington Post)
The Air Force's EELV procurement strategy would commit the Defense Department to a minimum of eight launches a year for a total of 40 through 2016. The average for the past four years has been about six launches a year. SpaceX wants to compete for these launches, which would otherwise go exclusively to United Launch Alliance (ULA).

Jessica Rye, a spokeswoman for ULA, said the company “has been consistent in our message,” which supports the government opening about 20 percent of its launch needs to competition while reserving the rest for a “block buy.” The split would “be a prudent buying practice to protect against any potential satellite delays,” Rye said.

SpaceX has supporters on Capitol Hill. “The [ULA] block buy was intended, in part, to reduce launch costs but it is not clear whether this contract will actually save the taxpayers’ money when compared to a full and open competition,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA). According to a report accompanying her committee's 2012 intelligence authorization bill, the “monopolistic state of EELV providers” was “particularly troublesome,” recommending that the Air Force reduce the launch quantity to, at most, five a year for no more than four years. (10/17)

DOD's Proposed Bulk Buy of Atlas, Delta Rockets Could Ground SpaceX Plans (Source: Florida Today)
The Air Force spent $1.2 billion on United Launch Alliance rockets in the 2011 fiscal year. The agency’s proposed 2012 budget projects a nearly 50 percent increase next year and spending nearly $10 billion during the next five years. A watchdog report expected to be released Monday could influence how the government buys these rockets for national security payloads, with potentially long-term ramifications for companies with neighboring Cape Canaveral launch pads.

SpaceX says such a large-scale purchase would effectively shut it out of that market for a decade, limiting competition and wasting money. Congress asked the U.S. Government Accountability Office to review the plan to buy 40 ULA boosters over five years, starting in the 2013 budget year. GAO assessed whether the Department of Defense understood ULA’s costs, the industrial base and opportunities for competition well enough to justify a long-term contract.

Editor's Note: In an interesting side-note, this SpaceX versus ULA lobbying battle pits SpaceX's government relations team against Mark Bitterman, the new ULA government affairs chief who left Orbital Sciences Corp. (another SpaceX rival) to join--and then quickly leave--SpaceX. (10/17)

Branson, NM Officials Dedicate Spaceport Terminal (Source: AP)
It's been nearly a year since British billionaire Richard Branson was in southern New Mexico for the dedication of the runway at Spaceport America. Now, the terminal and hangar facility is complete and Gov. Susana Martinez hands over the keys so Branson's Virgin Galactic can begin its commercial space tourism venture from this remote patch of desert in Sierra County. Clad with custom metal paneling and massive panes of glass, the state-of-the-art terminal rises up to face the nearly two-mile long runway. (10/17)

Take Cover: Another Satellite is Plunging to Earth (Source: USA Today)
It's déjà vu all over again, as Yogi Berra might have put it. This month, another defunct satellite is expected to plunge to Earth — offering us another welcome respite from worrying about our real problems. Instead, we can worry about the fantastically slim odds of being killed by some of the debris that will be shed by Germany's ROentgen SATellite (ROSAT) X-Ray telescope on its fiery uncontrolled re-entry to Earth just before Halloween.

"It will not be possible to make any kind of reliable forecast about where the satellite will actually come down until about one or two hours before the fact," says the European Space Agency's Heiner Klinkrad, in a statement on the re-entry. "In the final phase, ROSAT will be 'caught' by the atmosphere at which point it will not even complete an orbit around the Earth: Instead, it will go into 'free fall'." (10/17)

Space Station's Fate Rests on Oct. 30 Soyuz Launch (Source: Florida Today)
The near-term fate of the International Space Station rests with the upcoming launch of a robotic space freighter and an effort to improve quality control at Russian rocket engine factories. Three people operating the outpost will return to Earth on Nov. 22. The new crew is slated to launch Nov. 14, but that flight depends on the outcome of the Oct. 30 launch of a Soyuz U rocket with a Progress space freighter. (10/17)

First Soyuz Ready for Liftoff From French Guiana (Source: ESA)
The first Soyuz to take off from Europe’s Spaceport in French Guiana was moved to the launch pad yesterday. The rocket that will carry the first two Galileo navigation satellites into orbit is on track for liftoff on 20 October. (10/15)

Space is Getting its Groove Back (Source: Space Review)
This week's dedication of Spaceport America in New Mexico is the latest milestone in an emerging commercial space industry. Alan Stern sees these developments as signs of a new era in innovation in spaceflight analogous to the early aviation industry. Visit http://www.thespacereview.com/article/1952/1 to read the article. (10/17)

Linking JWST and Human Spaceflight (Source: Space Review)
Cost overruns with the James Webb Space Telescope will require NASA to take money from other programs, perhaps including human spaceflight, to cover its costs. Michael Kaplan explains how the two programs can instead be synergistic. Visit http://www.thespacereview.com/article/1951/1 to read the article. (10/17)

Launch Industry Transitions (Source: Space Review)
While most of the recent attention on new launch systems has focused on NASA's Space Launch System and SpaceX's plans for a reusable Falcon 9, other vehicles are reshaping the industry landscape as well. Jeff Foust reports on some recent developments by
several vehicles, and renewed concerns about overcapacity in the market. Visit http://www.thespacereview.com/article/1950/1 to read the article. (10/17)

Is a Human Asteroid Mission a Non-Starter? (Source: Space Review)
NASA's announced design of the Space Launch System rocket enables the space agency to pursue the goal set by the president of a human mission to an asteroid by 2025. Anthony Young wonders, though, if such a mission is compelling enough to hold interest over the years leading up to it. Visit http://www.thespacereview.com/article/1949/1 to read the article. (10/17)

Revisiting the Liability Convention: Reflections on ROSAT, Orbital Space Debris, and the Future of Space Law (Source: Space Review)
Another month, another falling satellite; in this case ROSAT, forecast to reenter later this month. Michael Listner discusses some of the legal issues specific to ROSAT's reentry as well as broader liability concerns about satellite collisions. Visit http://www.thespacereview.com/article/1948/1 to read the article. (10/17)

Returning From the Moon (Source: The Economist)
Here's a nice story for business travelers frustrated by paperwork: when the Apollo 11 astronauts returned from the moon, they filled out a customs form and declared their cargo. But the story is more complicated than it might appear. Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins did not actually have to fill out this form—they did so on a lark, presumably knowing it would amuse future travelers like ourselves. Mission accomplished, no?

My favorite bit of this is the line asking whether there was "any condition on board which may lead to the spread of disease", and someone has typed "TO BE DETERMINED". It seems very science-fiction-esque, but this was actually a real concern. Click here. Editor's Note: U.S. regulators long ago hashed out regulatory concerns about whether satellites launched into space from the U.S. are considered "exports." For the purposes of tariffs and foreign trade zone regulations, they are officially not exports. (10/16)

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