May 23, 2012

Florida Space Institute Funds Nine Research Projects (Source: UCF)
Nine research projects that promise to advance science and develop technology critical for future space missions have been selected to receive a total of $400,000 from the Florida Space Institute. Scientists from the University of Central Florida and the University of Florida are involved in the various projects, which involve experts in chemistry, physics, electrical engineering, planetary science, computer science, and nanotechnology.

The money was made available through the Space Research Initiative (SRI), a collaborative program between UCF and UF started to support joint efforts between the two universities in space-related research. The winning proposals are expected to draw additional funding from NASA, industry, and other federal and state agencies, said S. Alan Stern, who is serving as director of the Florida Space Institute. Click here to see the list of projects. (5/23)

Satellite Export Reform Bill Introduced in U.S. Senate (Source: Space News)
As expected, U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO) has introduced legislation that would give the U.S. president authority to transfer export jurisdiction for certain commercial satellite technologies from the U.S. State Department to the less-restrictive Department of Commerce. Introduced in the Senate May 22, the Safeguarding United States Leadership and Security Act (S. 3211) is companion legislation to a similar measure passed by the House of Representatives May 1 as part of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2013 (H.R. 4310). (5/23)

Frosted Honeycomb of a Moon (Source: Science News)
Hyperion may look like a wet sponge, but the Saturnian moon is actually covered in ice. New studies of images taken by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft in September 2005 reveal that the moon — a weirdly rotating, reddish, potato-shaped satellite with a honeycomblike surface — is covered in water and carbon dioxide ices, with hydrocarbons and iron-containing compounds mixed in. In some ways, Hyperion is similar to certain comets, which suggests the moon formed elsewhere before being snared by the ringed planet. (5/23)

Crisis Averted: Dark Matter Was There All Along (Source: New Scientist)
Fans of dark matter can rest easy. A study published last month raised eyebrows by suggesting that our cosmic neighborhood is empty of the extra mass needed to hold the galaxy together. But a re-analysis shows that the dark matter was there all along. Dark matter is the mysterious, invisible stuff that makes up 83 per cent of the matter in the universe. It is responsible for keeping galaxies from flying apart despite their high spinning speeds, and has aided our understanding of how structures in the universe formed.

The most popular theories say that dark matter is a hitherto undetected particle called a WIMP (weakly interacting massive particle) that is shy of interacting with ordinary matter through any force except gravity. But several underground detectors waiting for WIMPs have come up empty, or with conflicting results. If the galaxy is so full of dark matter, why hasn't it shown up yet?

In April, a team led by Christian Moni-Bidin of the University of Concepcion in Chile thought they had a solution: the WIMPs aren't actually there. The team tracked the motions of more than 400 stars within 13,000 light years of Earth to estimate the mass of matter – visible and dark – in the sun's local neighborhood. They concluded that the mass they found could be explained by the visible matter alone, with no need for dark matter. Click here. (5/23)

Is Planet X 2.0 Lurking Beyond Pluto (Source: Discovery)
Before the doomsayers hijacked "Planet X" and used it as a phantom to scare people into believing the 2012 doomsday hype, the hunt for Planet X was an exciting astronomical quest to find a hypothetical world in the outermost reaches of the solar system in the early 20th century. Although dwarf planet Pluto was discovered during the search for Planet X in 1930, apparently ending the quest, there is enduring evidence for the existence of a substantial planet gravitationally shaping the population of minor bodies in the Kuiper belt and beyond. The only problem is, we can't see it.

Earlier this month, at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society, Rodney Gomes, an astronomer from the National Observatory of Brazil, announced the results of his simulation of a region beyond Pluto known as the "scattered disk," suggesting the presence of an as yet to be discovered massive world. Click here. (5/23)

Despite Investments, SES Remains Unconvinced on Satellite Broadband (Source: Space News)
It has more consumer satellite broadband subscribers than anyone else in Europe and is investing in Ka-band broadband capacity on four satellites to be launched in the coming 30 months, but make no mistake: SES still believes satellite-delivered consumer broadband in Europe is a fool’s errand. Click here. (5/23)

Welcome to Spaceport Lockheed (Source: CNN)
The future of manned missions into outer space begins atop a slab of red rock in Littleton, Colo. The Space Operations Simulation Center, owned and operated by Lockheed Martin, is 40,576 square feet of indoor test bays, one of which features a 50-foot robot arm that can move 2,000 pounds. There, engineers test navigation equipment in a mock zero-gravity environment for the Orion capsule, which, one day, could take humans to Mars. Click here. (5/23)

NASA Sponsors Third Lunabotics Mining Competition at KSC (Source: SPACErePORT)
After winning multiple prizes last year, students from Embry-Riddle are once again competing in NASA's Lunabotics Mining Competition at Kennedy Space Center. Other Florida teams are from universities including FAMU, FSU, Florida Tech, FIU, and UNF. About 40 teams are competing from around the world. The challenge is for students to design and build an excavator, called a Lunabot, that can mine and deposit a minimum of 10 kilograms of lunar simulant within 10 minutes. The complexities of the challenge include the abrasive characteristics of the BP-1, the weight and size limitations of the Lunabot, and the ability to telerobotically or autonomously control the Lunabot from a remote mission control center. Click here. (5/23)

Florida Congratulates SpaceX on Launch. And Texas? (Source: Houston Chronicle)
One of the e-mails that popped into my inbox last night came from John Konkus, chief of staff for Lieutenant Governor Jennifer Carroll. She also happens to be chair of Space Florida, the sunshine state’s effort to woo commercial space ventures. The message contained a statement from Carroll congratulating SpaceX on its successful launch: "This mission is an historic moment for Florida and America... Today SpaceX has proved that Florida’s ready and skilled workforce and world-class infrastructure is second to none and ready to lead again in space launch, science and technology.”

Why do I care about such a statement from Florida? Simple: Because I didn’t get one from Texas. That’s because Texas doesn’t have a similar quasi-government group with a $10 million budget that shows the state is eager to attract commercial space. Texas doesn’t have a spaceport master plan, like Florida does. Virginia also has a similar plan moving forward. And Texas? Well, Texas is where SpaceX has expressed an interest in building a spaceport. But best I can tell the state isn’t doing much to reciprocate that interest. Why? I have no idea. This is a company that demonstrated once again on Tuesday that it’s going places. (5/23)

Potential Colorado Spaceport Plan Gaining Steam (Source:
Colorado’s mile-high altitude and welcoming attitude could bring a commercial spaceport to the Rocky Mountain state. Now being eyed as home of the Colorado Spaceport is the Front Range Airport in the city of Aurora, Colo., a site that sits on 4,000 acres (1,619 hectares) of landand is surrounded by 6,000 acres (2,428 hectacres) of nonresidential, privately owned industrial property.

Some Colorado officials are pushing for a spaceport to keep the state engaged in the commercial space industry. If spaceport designation is granted, the next step would be upgrading the Front Range Airport to support space travel. Advocates envision the spaceport handling suborbital space planes and serving as one hub of a worldwide network of suborbital point-to-point travel. (5/23)

Marshall Concludes Wind Tunnel Testing to Aid in SpaceX Reusable Launch System Design (Source: NASA)
NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville completed wind tunnel testing for SpaceX to provide Falcon 9 first stage re-entry data for the company's advanced reusable launch vehicle system. Under a Reimbursable Space Act Agreement, Marshall conducted 176 runs in the wind tunnel test facility on the Falcon 9 first stage to provide SpaceX with test data that will be used to develop a re-entry database for the recovery of the Falcon 9 first stage.

Tests were conducted at several orientations and speeds ranging from Mach numbers 0.3, or 228 miles per hour at sea level, to Mach 5, or 3,811 miles per hour at sea level, to gage how the first stage reacts during the descent phase of flight. In addition to wind tunnel testing, Marshall is providing propulsion engineering support to SpaceX in the development of the SuperDraco Launch Abort System (LAS) and on-orbit propulsion systems. (5/23)

SpaceX to Deliver Green-Propulsion Testbed to ISS (Source: Aviation Week)
SpaceX will get an early opportunity to show what it can do to help scientists and engineers use the International Space Station by flying a powerful thruster testbed up in the unpressurized section of its Dragon cargo capsule. That capability to fly large unpressurized cargo, and to bring samples back from space to a splashdown recovery off the California coast, will ease a couple of transportation bottlenecks as NASA shifts gears from building the space station to using it.

Last week the agency cleared Innovative Space Propulsion Systems (ISPS), a Houston-based partnership developing green rocket engines that use its patented non-toxic monopropellant, to fly a thruster testbed on the space station. The experimental package, which will ride in the unpressurized section of a Dragon set for launch next year, is exactly the type of work the station was built to accomplish. (5/23)

2,000 Apply for Jobs Building Asteroid-Mining Robots (Source:
If you want to be an asteroid miner, you've got some stiff competition. Less than three weeks after officially unveiling its asteroid-mining plans, the billionaire-backed firm Planetary Resources has already received thousands of job applications, officials said. In April, the company announced it was looking to hire a few qualified people — not pickaxe-swinging astronauts, mind you, but engineers who would help design and build a fleet of asteroid-mining robotic probes. The resulting resume deluge was so intense that Planetary Resources has turned off the spigot.

"We have received over 2,000 applications since our April 24th press event, and we are not currently accepting applications for full-time employees, summer internships or student co-ops," reads an update on the company's website. "In the near future, we will be seeking applications from students for Fall 2012 co-ops." (5/23)

Moon Chips From Vegas Casino Mogul Sent to NASA (Source: AP)
It's been a long, strange trip for what appears to be several tiny chips of lunar rock that found their way into a casino mogul's hands after being collected by the first men on the moon. If they're real, they were plucked from the lunar surface by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, given by then-President Richard Nixon to former Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza Garcia, pilfered by a Costa Rican mercenary soldier-turned Contra rebel, traded to a Baptist missionary for unknown items, then sold to a flamboyant Las Vegas casino mogul who squirreled them away in in a safety deposit box.

Now, more than 2½ years after Bob Stupak's death, an attorney for his estate has sent to NASA officials in Houston a tabletop display featuring the four gray chips the size of grains of rice. They're magnified in a Lucite dome about as big around as a U.S. 50-cent piece set with a small blue and white Nicaraguan flag. Combined, the chips weigh 0.05 grams. (5/23)

White House, Republicans Clash on Military Budget (Source: Bloomberg)
The Senate is taking up its own defense authorization bill, following the House passage of a Republican-led bill that would add back $4 billion to the proposed defense budget -- and which President Barack Obama has said he would veto. Senate Democrats are more likely to fall in line with the White House's proposal, which would trim spending by almost 5%. (5/23)

SpaceX Blasts Off Literally and Politically (Source: Sunlight Foundation)
Since its inception in 2002, SpaceX, the company behind Tuesday's successful launch, has spent more than $4 million lobbying Congress and given more than $800,000 in political contributions, according to data compiled from Sunlight's Influence Explorer. Many of the company's campaign donations went to key members of Congress in charge of the budget for NASA, which has mothballed the space shuttle in favor of commercial rockets for carrying payloads to the space station.

SpaceX's campaign to win political support has been systematic and sophisticated. Elon Musk does not surface as a political contributor in Influence Explorer records until 2002, the year he founded his commercial rocket company. Since then, he has donated nearly $725,000 to a politically disparate group of politicians. Last year, Musk gave the maximum legally allowed -- $35,800 -- to President Obama's reelection committee. But he also gave $15,000 to the National Republican Congressional Campaign Committee and $5,000 to Sen. Marco Rubio, R-FL, a tea party hero who is much mentioned as a potential vice presidential nominee.

In 2010, Musk gave identical amounts -- $25,900 -- to California Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, and his unsuccessful Republican opponent, Meg Whitman. Unlike many high-tech startups, SpaceX -- short for Space Exploration Technologies -- has maintained a significant lobbying presence in Washington almost since Day 1, records downloaded from Influence Explorer indicate. Since 2003, the company has spent more than $4.1 million on lobbying, an amount that steadily increased from $36,000 the first year to more than $1 million in 2010. SpaceX has used its own lobbyists as well as a series of outside firms. (5/23)

SpaceX Insured For ‘Maximum Possible Loss’ (Source: Insurance Journal)
It was not immediately clear who insures SpaceX, the launch or its payloads. According to NASA's Joshua Byerly, the FAA governs third party liability requirements, and according to FAA regulations third party liability insurance is required for the calculated maximum probable loss. “These values are defined and agreed to between the FAA and SpaceX,” Byerly said. NASA does not have any insurance requirements, aside from cross waivers of liability and contracts which cover the terms between NASA, SpaceX, and our International Partners. NASA also self insures its cargo. (5/23)

Can Sci-Fi Relaunch the Space Program? (Source: Wall Street Journal)
Filmmakers have tackled space travel from the first days of film – which is to say, before there was space travel. The most famous image from silent movies is Méliès’s “Man in the Moon” with a rocket in his eye. Early films adapted H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, and the adventures of Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers. By the time humanity reached orbit (Sputnik in 1957, cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin in 1961, and astronaut John Glenn in 1962) popcorn-munching crowds had already flocked to theaters for “Destination Moon” (1950) and “Forbidden Planet” (1956). Click here. (5/23)

Israeli Space Telescope Waits for Years, May Never See Launch (Source: Forbes)
Israel isn’t the first place one turns when thinking of astronomy from space. In a country arguably living under existential threat, the assumption is that Israelis are more likely to be scanning the skies for incoming missiles than new windows onto the nearby universe. But to its credit, Israel’s small but vibrant astronomical research community continues to make international strides in theoretical astrophysics, observational astronomy and in its own space program. There have also been glitches. For almost two decades now, TAUVEX, a $15 million ultraviolet (UV) space telescope, has been cooling its heels in clean rooms on two continents, waiting for a launch that never seems to come. Click here. (5/23)

Hangar One Preservationists Aim to Get Obama's Attention (Source: San Jose Mercury News)
A group working to preserve Hangar One at Moffett Field is taking its cause up the chain of command -- literally.
Today, when President Barack Obama touches down in Mountain View for a brief Bay Area visit, members of the Save Hangar One Committee will be there to draw his attention to the Depression-era structure's condition. "We are asking the president to direct NASA, the current owner of Moffett Field, to take steps to ensure that the hangar is re-skinned soon, so it is not exposed to the elements. This is a crucial next step in assuring that Hangar One becomes a productive asset as part of our national heritage."

A contractor hired by the Navy is in the midst of removing the hangar's panels, which were discovered about a decade ago to contain PCBs and other cancer-causing toxins. The Navy is responsible for the cleanup even though Moffett Field is now under NASA's control. The committee isn't looking to Obama to restore Hangar One funding that was stripped out of last year's federal budget. Rather, its members want to put a spotlight on a promising public-private partnership put forward by Google's top three executives in December. (5/23)

NASA Needs a Rebirth (Source: Harvard Crimson)
President Obama needs to specify a mission to either the Moon or Mars and set a firm deadline à la John F. Kennedy. This would create a target for NASA to work towards and a tangible goal that the American public can easily understand. The money that would be needed to expand NASA to allow manned flights to the Moon and Mars is there, but public support to open the Congressional purse is not.

Increased educational outreach efforts would help Americans understand how important NASA continues to be, and if persuasive enough, might let them be more generous with their money. Most of all, we need to dream again. After all, $30 or $40 billion a year for an institution that transports human beings beyond the confines of our rock is anything but expensive. (5/23)

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