May 1, 2012

California Meteorite is Rare Rock Laden with Organics (Source: New Scientist)
A meteorite that landed in northern California last week is much more valuable than scientists first thought. After the meteor was sighted streaking through the sky on 22 April, meteorite hunters found fragments of the rock, identified by the "fusion crust" that forms when it burns in the atmosphere. NASA and the SETI Institute also mobilized a search team of about 30 scientists, last weekend, to look for the fragile black rocks.

The meteorite turns out to be a very rare type of rock called CM chondrite, which makes up less than 1 per cent of the meteorites that fall to Earth. Bill Cooke of NASA's Meteoroid Environment Office at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, says it is not clear whether it is rare because it easily burns up in the atmosphere or there are just fewer of these rocks in space.

The Murchison meteorite, a large CM chondrite that made landfall in Australia in 1969, is now one of the most studied rocks in the world. Besides being rare, CM chondrites contain a lot of carbon and organic materials such as amino acids. Some believe this type of meteorite may have brought the first building blocks of life to Earth. As CM chondrite is one of the oldest types of rock in the universe, Cooke says that dating the newly discovered fragments will be a priority. (5/1)

NASA Explorer Schools Symposium Showcases Student Research (Source: SpaceRef)
Students from across the nation will gather at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston May 2-5 for the annual NASA Explorer Schools Symposium. These future leaders in science, technology, education and math, or STEM, have completed research investigations and will present their findings to a team of NASA scientists and engineers, student peers and educators. The competitively selected group consists of 60 students in grades four through 12 and 30 educators from 21 states. The group's research projects were designed to inspire interest in STEM disciplines and encourage pursuit of technical careers.

Editor's Note: I know Florida is (or was) home to multiple NASA Explorer Schools, but upon visiting the NASA NES website, I could find no list of NES schools. I did find this note on the NES FAQ page: "Due to privacy regulations, requirements and agreements, we cannot provide names of educators, schools or students participating in the NASA Explorer Schools project." I can understand not providing names of educators and students, but why can't a list of Explorer Schools be posted? (5/1)

Solar Bursts Well-Timed for Space Travel Safety Study (Source: Scripps)
A device designed at the University of Minnesota will soar to a hostile and largely unexplored region of space in September, seeking ways to make travel safer there for satellites and astronauts. Physics professor John Wygant's electric field and waves instrument, 15 years in the making, is one of five devices that will study magnetic and electrical forces and high-energy particles in radiation belts surrounding Earth. Those phenomena generate the diaphanous northern lights, but also have a more forbidding quality.

Wygant is one of several principal investigators on NASA's $700 million Radiation Belt Storm Probes (RBSP) project, joining scientists from five other universities and several space research institutes. His $26 million portion of the project is designed to develop a sort of map of the radiation belts and learn how and why the belts can change shape and intensity when struck by waves of solar radiation. The belts, which trap some of that radiation, are like doughnuts around the Earth; an inner ring is about 4,000 miles out and an outer ring extends from 8,000 to 36,000 miles out. (5/1)

Lockheed, Northrop Warn About the Effect of Defense Cuts (Source: FedBiz Daily)
Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman have filed documents with the Securities and Exchange Commission warning of serious negative financial effects that they say sequestration cuts will have on their operations. The companies say the additional $1.2 trillion in federal cuts will result in job losses and facility closures and would darken their financial outlooks. (5/1)

NASA Scientist Calls for Price Tag on Carbon (Source: Bloomberg)
James Hansen, a climate-change scientist at NASA, says that putting a price tag on carbon will help fight global warming. "The most efficient and economically affordable approach is to put an honest price on the different energies," Hansen said. "Presently, we're subsidizing fossil fuels and not making them pay for their costs to society." (4/27)

China's Space Know-How a Threat to U.S., Taiwan (Source: Reuters)
China's growing capabilities in space could undercut any U.S. military response if Beijing resorted to force to bring self-ruled Taiwan into its fold, a study released Friday by a congressionally mandated U.S. commission said. China's military is rapidly boosting its space programs to advance Communist Party interests "and defend against perceived challenges to sovereignty and territorial integrity," said the 84-page report by the Project 2049 Institute

China has claimed Taiwan as its own since the end of the Chinese civil war in 1949 and has vowed to bring the island under mainland rule, by force if necessary. The PLA is improving its ability to monitor events in the Asia-Pacific region through an expanded system of space-based remote sensing, communications and navigation satellites, the Project 2049 Institute said. Such space assets could help China threaten an expanding number of targets throughout the western Pacific Ocean, South China Sea and elsewhere around its periphery, according to the report. (4/27)

Abu Dhabi-Backed Virgin Galactic Eyes Annual Revenue of $500 Million (Source: Arabian Business)
Richard Branson’s Abu Dhabi-backed Virgin Galactic has seen “fantastic” interest from customers looking to book seats on its spacecraft and is looking to increase its revenue to around US$500m per annum within the next few years, the company’s CEO told Arabian Business in an interview. “A few weeks ago we announced our 500 customer deposit, at $200,000 a ticket it signifies a milestone of over $100 million in future revenue. That business is just one piece of the overall commercial space travel market, [which is] worth billions of dollars overall,” said Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides. (5/1)

MDA Signs Deal for DreamChaser Comm (Source: Vancouver Sun)
MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates is working on a communications link for commercial space shuttle craft. The Richmond company announced Monday it has signed a contract with Sierra Nevada Corp. to provide an engineering concept for a communications solution for the ongoing phase of NASA's commercial crew development program. (5/1)

Second Round of Stennis Testing Underway on Rocket Engine (Source: Biloxi SunHerald)
NASA has kicked off the next round of testing on the J-2X rocket engine at the Stennis Space Center in Hancock County. A total of 16 tests are scheduled and are expected to conclude by the end of this year. The first test was this past week. The J-2X is being developed by Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne for NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. It is the first liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen rocket engine rated to carry humans into space to be developed in 40 years. (5/1)

Europe's Safran Consolidates Solid-Rocket Propulsion Business (Source: Space News)
France’s Safran has completed the merger of SME, formerly a subsidiary of the state-owned SNPE, and Safran’s own Snecma Solid Propulsion division into Europe’s foremost solid-rocket propulsion specialist, to be known as Herakles. Herakles affiliates include Pyroalliance, which manufactures rocket ignition components; and the Europropulsion and Regulus companies, which are responsible for the Ariane 5 rocket’s solid-fueled strap-on boosters built both in Europe and at the French Guiana spaceport in South America.

Europropulsion and Regulus also provide solid propellant for the small Vega rocket, which recently entered service. Taken together, the Herakles divisions will generate annual revenue of about 700 million euros ($924 million), according to Safran. Safran purchased SNPE’s solid-rocket division in April 2011, ending a multiyear effort by Safran and Snecma to consolidate Europe’s solid-rocket propulsion sector for missiles and launch vehicles. (5/1)

Telesat Pays Big Dividend, Plans To Order Satellite (Source: Space News)
Satellite fleet operator Telesat expects to order a replacement for its Telstar 12 satellite this year but otherwise has no plans to expand its fleet or to seek a strategic transaction along the lines of the one its shareholders considered in 2011, Telesat Chief Executive Daniel S. Goldberg said. The Ottawa-based company, which in lieu of selling itself distributed a large cash dividend to its two investors and made a hefty cash payment to Telesat management and selected employees, said its immediate focus is on the launch of two spacecraft in 2012. (5/1)

Virgin Galactic Establishes Galactic Unite Education Program (Source: Virgin Galactic)
Galactic Unite was created in partnership with Virgin Unite and Virgin Galactic from a desire by Virgin Galactic Future Astronauts to channel their energy and resources to achieve positive change in the world. While we are only at the brink of commercial space travel, ongoing innovation and success rests in the hands of future generations in the fields of science, technology, math, engineering and business entrepreneurship (STEM+). To answer some of the toughest global challenges and to create millions of STEM+ opportunities for young people, Galactic Unite is working to promote the necessary skills in students now and in the future through education, entrepreneurship, and inspiration. (5/1)

Making Money in Space (Source: Daily Finance)
While the space industry isn't easily accessible to private investors, its prospects mean that one day the sector will become the toast of the stock market. So it's something I keep an eye on, as I believe it will present some great opportunities in the future. Click here. (5/1)

Can Space Mining Be Profitable? (Source: Daily Finance)
The Keck Institute for Space Studies has estimated that it would cost around 1.6 billion pounds just to bring a single 500-ton asteroid back to the moon for mining. That's before the cost of setting up the venture in the first place, which will probably run to more than 50 billion pounds. Another problem is that rare metals go for high prices because they are, well, rare. So if these robot miners start to extract large quantities of them from asteroids, this would drive down their price. (5/1)

Blue-Sky Ambitions at Blue Origin (Source: MSNBC)
Executives at Blue Origin have traditionally been reticent about discussing where they're going — but now that they're focusing in on development work for NASA, they're speaking out about their progress and their ambitions. Like Armadillo Aerospace, Blue is developing a vertical-takeoff suborbital space vehicle for tourists and researchers. Like Sierra Nevada Corp., it's working on an aerodynamic spacecraft to carry NASA astronauts and other spacefliers into orbit. And like SpaceX, it's working on its own launch vehicles as well. The company may not provide many specifics about its timeline, but that doesn't mean the pace is lackadaisical. Click here. (5/1)

Why Asteroid Mining Won’t Spark Interstellar Gold Rush (Source: Globe and Mail)
“Harnessing valuable minerals from a practically infinite source”. That’s the eye-catching mission statement or perhaps slogan of Planetary Resources, the company, backed by Google’s billionaire Larry Page, which made the headlines last week by promising asteroid mining. If you take the claims at face value, you could almost see the world’s largest natural resources companies, including powerful miners such as BHP Billiton, Vale of Brazil and Rio Tinto, thinking their game will soon be over. The space mining talk amounts, however, to no more than hot air and gobbledegook.

Paul Horsnell and Amrita Sen, two respected commodities analysts from Barclays Capital, have boldly gone in search of the price levels commodities would need to reach to help space mining break even. It looks like they also had some fun in the process. Planetary Resources declined to comment on the cost it estimates it would take to bring minerals back to planet Earth - or provide any timeline.

Their calculations are based on NASA’s forthcoming OSIRIS-REx mission, which aims to launch a probe in 2016 to pluck samples from an asteroid called 1999 RQ36 and bring them to Earth. The $1-billion mission is made up of $800-million for the vehicle, plus another $200-million for the rocket launch. Since that outlay will return just a couple of ounces of material, the Barclays' analysts say they could use it as a baseline to estimate break-even prices for asteroid mining. They estimate that copper prices would need to skyrocket from today’s $3.81 per ounce to $476-million for a similarly-funded space mining project to cover its costs. (5/1)

Florida Governor Vetoes Funding for FIT Space Research Program (Source: Sunshine State News)
A wide-ranging bill that included shifting tax dollars generated by visitors to Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station to Florida Institute of Technology was vetoed by Gov. Rick Scott on Friday. Scott wrote that while he supported the majority of the bill, House Bill 7099, he disagreed with the Legislature's decision to send $5 million a year in sales tax revenue from the space center visitors to the Melbourne-based FIT.

“While the stated purpose is to provide funding to operate a space exploration research institute at FIT, the language was never vetted through an appropriations committee,” Scott wrote in the veto letter to Secretary of State Ken Detzner. The FIT research program was to be set up in conjunction with Space Florida. A staff fiscal analysis of the bill stated the FIT program would provide unspecified “economic development and job creation opportunities.” (5/1)

Rep. Sandy Adams Profiled in Orlando Sentinel (Source: Orlando Sentinel)
Rep. Sandy Adams (R-FL) is seeking reelection to a revised district that will no longer include Kennedy Space Center, but will be adjacent to the spaceport and be home to many KSC workers. She'll likely be running against Rep. John Mica in a Republican primary. The Orlando Sentinel published this profile of Rep. Adams. (4/1)

Book Details Fate of Unused Saturn V Rockets (Source: Space Review)
NASA's efforts to display--and partially re-use elements of--the Space Shuttles are in marked contrast to what NASA did at the end of the Apollo program, when it found itself with several leftover Saturn V rockets. The rockets were unceremoniously put on display at KSC as well as the Johnson Space Center in Houston and the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville. All three were displayed outdoors, so that over time the elements took their toll. Click here.

Editor's Note: When I worked for the Spaceport Florida Authority, we financed the development of the Apollo-Saturn V Center (ASVC) at KSC after NASA was unable to obtain appropriated funds for the project. This was in response to concerns about the Saturn V at KSC slowly deteriorating in the salty air at the spaceport. There was another effort at the time to resurrect and preserve the Saturn V launch tower, which was dismantled and stored in pieces behind the KSC Headquarters building. A small portion of the tower was put on display in the ASVC, but the rest was sold for scrap. (5/1)

Generation Orbit Offers Air-Launch Services for Cubesat-Sized Payloads (Source: GO)
Generation Orbit Launch Services, Inc. (or GO) presents a fast, flexible, and dedicated nanosatellite (1-30 kg) orbital payload delivery service called GO Launcher, utilizing existing high speed jet aircraft and mostly existing rockets. GO is putting together a qualified and capable team of aerospace and aeronautical experts including space launch vehicle designers, former military fighter pilots, aircraft operators, and rocket system developers. Click here. (4/30)

NASA's Marshall Center to Be Honored by Alabama Legislature May 3 (Source: NASA)
NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville will be honored by the Alabama Legislature with the reading of a resolution honoring the achievements of NASA’s Marshall Center in space exploration. Marshall’s Acting Center Director Gene Goldman has been invited to address a joint session of the Alabama Legislature, which will be followed by the reading of the resolution commending the Marshall Center as an engine of economic development, the anchor of the aerospace industry in North Alabama, and for employing almost 6,000 government and contractor personnel in unique and specialized facilities and laboratories.
In addition, Goldman will meet with Legislators and Governor Bentley. NASA astronaut T.J. Creamer, who lived and worked aboard the International Space Station as a flight engineer and NASA science officer on Expedition 22/23 from December 2009 to June 2010, also will be available to answer questions about his experiences. (4/30)

SETI Telescope to Help US Air Force Track Space Junk (Source:
A privately funded search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) has pulled in its antenna horns a tad to help the U.S. Air Force gauge human-made space junk circling Earth. The United States Air Force Space Command is on the lookout to improve its Space Surveillance Network, a global setup of radar and optical sensors that detect and track orbiting space junk and satellites.

According to a deal announced April 13, the non-profit research institute SRI International is the new manager of the Hat Creek Radio Observatory in Northern California. That observatory includes the Allen Telescope Array built by the SETI Institute and the University of California. The Allen Telescope Array is bankrolled, in part, by the well-heeled Paul Allen, a Microsoft co-founder. Its primary mission, like that of SETI, is to listen for any signals that could be from an intelligent civilization among the stars. (4/30)

Giant Alien Planet May Have Split into 2 Earth-Size Worlds (Source:
A massive alien planet that may have been ripped into Earth-size chunks by its dying parent star is offering a unique glimpse into the evolution of other worlds and their stars, scientists say. The planet's two remaining pieces, which researchers tentatively identified as planet-size objects just slightly smaller than Earth, were possibly created when their parent body spiraled inward too close to the bloated red giant star KIC 05807616. Extreme tidal forces then tore the parent planet into pieces, some of which seem to have stabilized in orbit around the star, revealing that a planet's life doesn't always start and end neatly, researchers said. (4/30)

SpaceX Conducts Falcon 9 Hot-Fire Test (Source: Space News)
It took two tries, but SpaceX successfully test-fired all nine engines comprising the first stage of its Falcon 9 rocket April 30 in preparation for a scheduled May 7 demonstration flight in which the vehicle will launch the company’s Dragon cargo capsule toward the international space station. (4/30)

NASA Simply Stopped Being a Priority (Source: Huffington Post)
When you try to determine what is important to someone, it is useful to pay attention to how that person spends their time and their money. Someone who talks endlessly about how passionately they feel about getting involved in a certain cause, but never puts any time or money into it is just talking. Someone who dedicates a considerable amount of their time or money to a certain cause is investing in what they believe is important, whether or not they advertise that to the world or not.

Governments are similar. The priorities of a government can be seen in its budgets, not in politician's visionary speeches. As you can see from this graph, NASA funding was a substantial part of the federal budget. There was a burst of funding and scientific activity in the 1960's, leading up to the 1969 moon landing and then funding dried up. Landing on the moon was no longer a priority and further space exploration, whether it be to Mars or other planets required a far greater investment. Click here. (4/30)

Boeing Celebrates 50 Years in Alabama (Source: Boeing)
Boeing celebrates 50 years in Alabama, where employees play a vital role in building and sustaining the United States' space and defense programs. The largest aerospace company in the state of Alabama, Boeing maintains its Strategic Missile & Defense Systems headquarters in Huntsville, as well as its largest program, Ground-based Midcourse Defense. Huntsville also hosts Boeing Exploration Launch Systems, which oversees the Space Launch System – NASA's new heavy-lift launch vehicle – and support to the International Space Station.

"Alabama and the Tennessee Valley region are rich in resources that have helped to make Boeing successful here – an excellent work ethic, innovative and talented people, and valued community partners," said Tony Jones, Boeing vice president and Huntsville site leader. "We are very proud, but not surprised, to have achieved this significant milestone. (4/30)

A Most Peculiar Sunset (Source: NPR)
You wouldn't know it, not right away, but there is something strange about this picture. It's a sunset, yes, but notice the blush of color right above the sun. It's blue. And as you look up, the blue fades into a faint rose or pink. Now think about the sunsets you've seen, how often the sky can turn golden, or orange, sometimes pink, red, but when you look up, away from the setting sun, those colors fade back to a pale, twilight blue? It's rare to see a sunset dipped in blue.

So this photo is a puzzle: it's blue where the red should be and red where the blue should be. Why? Because we're not on Earth. This is a Martian sunset. On May 19, 2005, the camera on NASA's little robot, the rover named Spirit, took this picture while sitting in the Gusev crater on Mars. Apparently, Mars has blue sunsets all the time. Earth doesn't.

On Earth, the air is mostly nitrogen and oxygen. We've also got moisture, dust particles, smoke, aerosols, pollen, salt from the ocean. The atmosphere on Earth is denser — meaning there are more molecules per cubic inch in our air. Martian air, by contrast, is much, much thinner, about 1percent the density of air on Earth, plus the gasses are different: they've got CO2, nitrogen and argon, but most important, says Mark Lemmon, associate professor of planetary sciences at Texas A&M University, air on Mars is rich with teeny, teeny particles of dust. (4/30)

Orbital Sciences Development Costs Increase (Source: Flight Global)
Documents filed with the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) reveal that Orbital Sciences' development costs for the Antares rocket are estimated at $472 million. "Under the COTS agreement, as amended, as of March 31, 2012, NASA has agreed to pay us $288 million in cash milestone payments, partially funding our program costs which are currently estimated to be approximately $472 million," reads the 10-Q. "We expect to complete this program in the second half of 2012."

The estimated cost is higher than the fourth quarter, 2011 filing, which stated that the estimated development costs totaled $458 million. The estimated development costs for Antares are relatively low for a new rocket program. Though development costs are tightly held competitive secrets, programs for similar rockets routinely reach into the billions of dollars. (4/30)

1492's Lessons for Asteroid Miners (Source: USA Today)
At least this time, we wouldn't have to worry about the enslaving of the indigenous inhabitants of the asteroids to mine them... as far as we know. When was the last time that great wealth or new resources injected into the world economy didn't have a disruptive effect? There are all sorts of parallels. For example, colonial entrepreneurs centuries ago formed the forerunners of today's corporations. These were private entities chartered to do things that the government wanted to do anyway. You could argue there are parallels to exploring space. The aerospace industry isn't exactly a free market, after all. Click here. (4/30)

Blue Origin Developing Its Own Launch Vehicle (Source: Aviation Week)
Blue Origin, the secretive spaceflight startup endowed by founder Jeff Bezos, is at work on separate vehicles for two different flight profiles: a suborbital vertical-takeoff-and-landing spacecraft called New Shepard, and a seven-seat orbital capsule so far known only as Space Vehicle.

Brett Alexander, Blue Origin’s director of business development and strategy, lifted the curtain a little on the Kent, Wash.-based company in a brief interview April 27, revealing that while the Space Vehicle will fly to orbit on an Atlas V in early flights, the company plans to build its own partially reusable launch vehicle “several years in the future” for orbital flight. Click here. (4/30)

Death Valley Stands In for Red Planet (Source:
The chief scientist for NASA's newest Mars rover mission is heading to Death Valley today (April 30), and is going along for the ride. Caltech's John Grotzinger, project scientist for NASA's huge Curiosity rover, is leading a handful of journalists on a two-day trip to the famous patch of California desert, whose geology and vistas are remarkably Mars-like in some places.

The goal is to help reporters get a better idea of the science Curiosity will be doing when it touches down on the Red Planet on the night of Aug. 5. We depart from the Caltech campus here at 8 a.m. local time (11 a.m. EDT; 1500 GMT) today, and should roll into Death Valley about four hours later. Unlike frigid Mars, Death Valley will be hot for the next couple of days; we've been told to bring sunscreen, wide-brim hats and lots of water. (4/30)

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