January 26, 2013

NASA Won't Release SLS Performance Specs (Source: Huntsville Times)
NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville has refused a Freedom of Information Act request for technical performance specifications on the new heavy-lift rocket being developed here, a NASA-reporting website says. The agency cites "export-controlled information" in the specifications, according to a NASA letter posted on the website. The website posting the letter, spaceref.com, says the issue regarding the requested specifications is a federal law banning the export of certain defense-related technology.

The law established rules called International Traffic in Arms Regulations and typically referred to by the acryonym  ITAR. Marshall is leading development of the booster part of NASA's new Space Launch System designed to return American astronauts to deep-space destinations such as asteroids and Mars. The material requested was technical performance metrics presented to senior SLS managers monthly. The report did not identify the person filing the request for those specifications. (1/25)

Asteroids vs. Comets: NASA Expert Assesses the Cosmic Threats to Earth (Source: NBC)
NASA's top expert on near-Earth objects says that new telescope systems, including a "last alert" system that's just now being set up, are gradually getting a handle on potentially threatening asteroids. But comets? That's a completely different story. "We can do something about asteroids. Comets are a problem," said JPL's Donald Yeomans. "Yeomans is the author of "Near-Earth Objects: Finding Them Before They Find Us," a new book sizing up the cosmic perils posed by asteroids and comets — and looking ahead to the potential they offer for scientific discovery and economic exploitation.

For an example of the perils, you need look no further than the dinosaurs — or, more accurately, the lack thereof. Scientists believe an asteroid impact along the coast of Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula set off a chain of events that killed off the dinosaurs and many other species 65 million years ago. A much smaller impact in 1908 blew down half a million acres' worth of trees in Siberia, and could have leveled a city nearly the size of Tokyo if its trajectory were different. Click here. (1/26)

Investigating NASA's Spending on Video Games, Apps (Source: WFTV)
WFTV learned NASA is investing hundreds of thousands of dollars into video games and apps, saying it's a great way to get young people excited about careers in space, math and science. But some critics are warning there are better things to spend tax dollars on. While NASA has stopped sending people into space, for now, it has started exploring the solar system remotely through video games. The agency has invested $500,000 in content and expertise to help create the video games and apps.

A private company told 9 Investigates it has a contract with NASA for $1 million more to develop StarLite, a game that simulates a journey to Mars and the life of astronauts on the red planet. But NASA officials dispute the amount and said the agency's in-kind investment is $102,000. "It's not a good idea," said taxpayer John Flyn. "They already did space. They can't go any further." But NASA said it has big plans and wants to inspire students to pursue careers in math and science.

And supporters said video games are the best way to reach them, especially since a new study by the Pew Research Center found nearly every teenager in America plays video games. "This is reaching out to kids, speaking a language that they understand that will hopefully inspire them to pursue those careers that are so important to our space program," said space expert Jim Banke. Congressman Bill Posey, who recently joined a committee overseeing NASA, said he isn't sure video games are the answer. "NASA should be focused on space exploration more than anything else," he said. (1/26)

Will This be the Year Virgin Galactic Lifts Off? (Source: Albuquerque Business First)
It looks like Virgin Galactic will fly. But it hasn’t been an easy legislative road for supporters of Spaceport America, and the journey isn’t over. For several months, the Save Our Spaceport Coalition and Virgin Galactic have turned the volume up to 11 to broadcast their view that the state must pass an informed consent law limiting suppliers’ liability if something went wrong during space flight. Without it, many feared, Virgin Galactic and the southern New Mexico spaceport wouldn’t get off the ground. (1/25)

Globalstar Confirms Feb. 5 Launch Plans (Source: Globalstar)
Globalstar announced that its fourth launch of six second generation satellites has been confirmed for February 5 at 11:20 a.m. Eastern Standard Time. This will be the fourth and final launch from Baikonur, Kazakhstan, completing Globalstar’s plan to orbit 24 second-generation satellites. Globalstar has previously launched 18 second-generation satellites and has placed into commercial service all of the previously launched second-generation satellites.

The February 5th launch is the last launch necessary to fully restore Globalstar’s Duplex service to the high level of quality that Globalstar’s customers have historically enjoyed. Globalstar’s second-generation satellites were designed and manufactured by Thales Alenia Space with a service life of fifteen years, twice that of Globalstar’s first-generation satellites. (1/26)

Safety Panel Discusses NASA Concerns at KSC Meeting (Source: Florida Today)
NASA will not ask companies to fly crews on test flights of new commercial spacecraft without awarding new contracts needed to ensure their safety, an independent safety panel reported at KSC. NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel, or ASAP, said that clarification addressed its concerns that such flights could be requested under existing, non-traditional contracts called Space Act Agreements, which limit NASA’s oversight.

"NASA will not fly people to orbit under a Space Act Agreement," said Joe Dyer, the panel’s chair, reading from a NASA statement. The safety panel, which heard briefings from NASA officials over three days of meetings at Kennedy, also said tight budgets could delay or create safety issues in the agency’s new human spaceflight programs.

NASA officials told the panel there is already concern about whether a heavy-lift rocket being developed for exploration missions, called the Space Launch System, will be ready for a first test launch from KSC in late 2017. Flat budgets proposed each year for the SLS program create challenges spacing out work while keeping schedules on track, and are not how complex development programs are typically funded. (1/25)

On Mars, Dry Ice 'Smoke' Carves Up Sand Dunes (Source: Space.com)
The seasonal thawing of carbon dioxide ice near Mars' north pole carves grooves in the region's sand dunes, three new studies reveal. The discovery, made using observations from NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft (MRO), reinforces that the Red Planet's surface continues to be transformed today, even though Mars' volcanoes have died out and its liquid surface water apparently dried up long ago.

"It's an amazingly dynamic process," Candice Hansen of the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Ariz., lead author of one of the studies, said in a statement. "We had this old paradigm that all the action on Mars was billions of years ago. Thanks to the ability to monitor changes with the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, one of the new paradigms is that Mars has many active processes today." (1/25)

Space Junk Menace: How to Deal with Orbital Debris (Source: Space.com)
The saga of what steps that must be taken to deal with the evolving threat of Earth-circling orbital debris is a work in progress.  This menacing problem — and the possible cleanup solutions — is international in scope. Space junk is an assortment of objects in Earth orbit that is a mix of everything from spent rocket stages, derelict satellites, chunks of busted up spacecraft to paint chips, springs and bolts.

Against this backdrop of untidiness in space and the global worry among spacefaring countries it causes, experts continue to tackle the issue of exactly what to do about orbital debris. A number of rules have been pondered to address the space debris problem, from regulations that attempt to cut down on the shedding of new debris to better tracking of the human-made refuge, as well as scavenging concepts including fishing nets, lasers and garbage scows. Click here. (1/25)

Nuclear-Powered Rocket Could Reach Mars for Less (Source: Space.com)
A new online petition seeks to send people into space sooner, using a Kennedy-era technology that never had the chance to take flight. At We the People, a website that lets users submit petitions to the Obama Administration, one petition urges officials to "harness the full intellectual and industrial strength of our universities, national laboratories and private enterprise to rapidly develop and deploy a nuclear thermal rocket."

What does that mean? And should you sign the petition? Well, nuclear thermal rockets could play a major role in sending people to other planets in the future. The rockets are at least twice as efficient as current chemical rockets, which means they could carry more supplies, support heavier shields against cosmic radiation and take astronauts to other planets more quickly. (1/25)

Endless Opportunity (Source: The Economist)
Opportunity may no longer be able to move forward. Fortunately, boffins have worked around this niggle by getting this Mars Exploration Rover (MER-B, to give its technical moniker) to drive in reverse. It is thanks to clever tinkering like this that it is "nine years into its 90-day mission", as that mission's head, John Callas, likes to say. The rover and its twin, Spirit (MER-A), landed on opposite sides of Mars on January 25, 2004, according to Earthly reckoning. Its sibling became stuck in loose soil in 2009 and stopped responding to ground control on March 22, 2010.

The conservative three-month mission length was based on scientists' concern that Martian regolith would have an electrostatic charge that would make it accrue over time to the solar panels that provided all of the rovers' power, and stay stuck even as the rovers moved about or hoisted themselves at an angle. But Mars offered a pleasant surprise: the dust doesn't appear to have a charge, and regular dust storms, known as "cleaning events", actually scour the panels and restore generating capacity. (1/25)

Fool's Platinum (Source: The Economist)
It isn't a gold rush quite yet. But the launch of a second asteroid-mining venture in a year suggests that the allure of extra-terrestrial prospecting may be as hard to resist for some as the Klondike was. Deep Space Industries has entered the fray, joining Planetary Resources, a firm backed by Google executives, which promised to have its first asteroid-hunting spacecraft in orbit by the end of 2014. The potential bonanza is, well, astronomical.

A single 500-meter metal-rich asteroid might contain the equivalent of all the platinum-group metals mined to date. Even humble ice could sustain astronauts or be processed into rocket fuel for future missions to Mars. Deep Space Industries might be dreaming big but it is starting small. Smaller still, in fact, than the relatively puny Planetary Resources. The company is aiming to raise a mere $3m this year from venture capitalists, angels and private-equity funds, and another $10m next year.

It will spend the money designing, building and launching a fleet of three single-use spacecraft, dubbed Firefly, to conduct fly-bys of small asteroids. Planetary Resources, by comparison, intends to launch several constellations of tiny spacecraft into Earth orbit, where they will spend years observing and cataloguing nearby rocks. The economic case for asteroid mining remains far from obvious. A doubling of supply from space might, for instance, exert such downward pressure on the price of platinum on Earth as to undermine the whole business case for the venture. Click here. (1/24)

Lego Robot Experience at Wallops Spaceport on Jan. 26 (Source: DelMarVaNow.com)
Interested in NASA’s missions to Mars? Curious about Curiosity? On Jan. 26, come to the Marine Science Consortium in Wallops Island from 9 a.m.-noon to get some hands-on experience by building and programming your own Lego robot. Virginia Space Flight Academy and NASA Visitor Center staff will run this brain-stretching, fun event. Each robot will compete in a course designed to simulate some of the challenges NASA faces when sending rovers to Mars. (1/25)

NASA Wallops Rocket Launch on Jan. 29 Will Prepare for Future Projects (Source: SpaceRef)
A NASA rocket mission to test technology for gathering science data during future projects is scheduled for launch between 5:30 - 6:50 p.m. EST, January 29, from the NASA Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. During the suborbital flight of the Terrier-Improved Orion sounding rocket, two red-colored lithium vapor trails will occur in space that may be seen throughout the mid-Atlantic region. (1/25)

New Mexico Legislative Deal Adds Insurance Requirement, Removes Negligence Standard (Source: Parabolic Arc)
A proposed compromise on New Mexico’s informed consent law provides limited liability protections to spacecraft manufacturers, suppliers and operators while adding an $1 million insurance coverage requirement and altering one of the three conditions under which injured parties can sue. Only spacecraft operators such as Virgin Galactic are covered under the current law.

One of the most significant changes in the proposed law involves the removal of gross negligence as one of the conditions that would void legal protections for manufacturers, suppliers and operators. The law currently states that a spacecraft operator would be liable if it "commits an act or omission that constitutes gross negligence or willful, wanton disregard for the safety of the participant and that act or omission proximately causes injury, damage or death to the participant." (1/24)

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