May 28, 2013

No Planet of Alpha Centauri B? (Source: Sky & Telescope)
Last October astronomers announced big news: the discovery of a rocky, scorching hot, Earth-sized planet circling our closest stellar neighbor, the orange dwarf star Alpha Centauri B just 4.3 light-years away. Exoplanet astronomer Debra Fischer told the New York Times that the planet next door was the “story of the decade.” Almost lost in the excitement was the caveat that the planet’s detection was still iffy and required heroic efforts to extract any sign of it from the background noise of the star’s radial-velocity measurements.

Now the plot has become more muddled. A new analysis of the data by an independent researcher has failed to confirm the planet’s existence. The new study, by Artie Hatzes, is not a death sentence for Alpha Cen Bb, as it’s named. But both sides say it illustrates the need for more data collection and confirmation before it is accorded full planethood — or, Hatzes adds, feted by the media. “Although big discoveries are exciting, they should be treated with caution,” he says. (5/28)

The Private Road to Mars (Source: Space Review)
Sending humans to Mars is widely considered to be such a difficult project that only government agencies can achieve it, and even only then as a long-term goal. Jeff Foust reports on the progress made by private efforts who believe they can get humans to Mars, perhaps permanently, more quickly and less expensively than traditional government programs. Visit to view the article (5/28)

Launch Failures: Information Flow (Source: Space Review)
Determining the cause of a launch failure can be difficult enough, but disseminating that information to companies and organizations can be even more challenging. Wayne Eleazer reviews some past problems with sharing launch failure information and discusses whether the situation is better today. Visit to view the article (5/28)

Effective Mechanisms for Space Security (Source: Space Review)
International discussions about codes of conduct and other measures to promote space security continue this year at the UN and elsewhere. Ajey Lele examines what is required for such measures to truly enhance space security. Visit to view the article (5/28)

Consider Mars (Source: Space Review)
Spending money on space exploration is often pitted against terrestrial programs to raise the standard of living of people around the world. Frank Stratford argues that space programs can explore the solar system and serve humanitarian missions simultaneously. Visit to view the article (5/28)

Space Mom's Balance of Career, Life Draws Attention  (Source: Florida Today)
Dandelions in a makeshift vase with the remark: “Picked fresh for me today! Some of the most special ‘flowers’ I’ve ever received.” A little boy in Thomas the Tank Engine boots splashing in a rain puddle. Snuggling with her 10-year-old dog, Charlie.

There’s a common thread to most of Karen Nyberg’s social media photos and posts, many using the #simplejoysonearth hashtag: They are personal and simple, with her 3-year-old son, Jack, often the star. They are a catalog of the small moments that many moms record and share.

Then comes a tweet such as “Measuring center of mass for launch vehicle calcs during final fit check of Sokul suit today. Suit’s ready to go!” And with that, a reminder of Nyberg’s other job: astronaut. The 43-year-old Minnesota native, who became the 50th woman in space when she flew to the Space Station in 2008, is now only only the ninth woman in the world to make a long-duration flight to the International Space Station. (5/28)

ULA Returns Delta IV to Service (Source: America Space)
Providing a strong showing for itself, United Launch Alliance’s Delta IV medium rocket thundered off of Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 37 (SLC-37) at the opening of its launch window at 8:27 p.m. EDT Friday, May 24. In so doing, it returned the launch vehicle to service after an issue cropped up during the Delta IV’s previous launch. Unique angles, incredible imagery, and an epic return to flight were all part of a day’s work.

The normal viewing locations the media are normally taken to for launch viewing were unavailable. As such, they were taken to the camera mound near the iconic Astronaut Beach House at Cape Canaveral. Coupled with still and video imagery from SLC-37, we think you’ll agree this launch stands out. Click here. (5/26)

Student-Built Robots to Race in Mock Mars Rover Challenge (Source:
What does it take to build and command a vehicle capable of exploring Mars? Ninety students from around the world are about to find out. Next week, in a remote desert in southern Utah, 10 teams from the United States, Canada, India and Poland will compete in the annual University Rover Challenge (URC). The competition is hosted by the Mars Society, a non-profit research organization dedicated to promoting the exploration and eventual settlement of Mars.

The competition site is located at the society's Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS), a rocky barren landscape that's about as close to Martian terrain as you can get on Earth. Each team was allowed to spend up to $15,000 on their rovers, which can weigh no more than 50 kilograms — about 110 lbs. The competition will begin early Thursday morning as teams leave their lodgings in Hanksville, Utah (Pop. 215), and travel about seven miles along a road that dwindles to a dirt track. Over three days, teams will use their vehicles to compete in four challenges, designed to replicate the activities of NASA's rovers on Mars. (5/25)

What We'll eat, Wear and Play With to Ease Boredom in Space (Source: NBC)
One month into a simulated space mission, a team of "gastronauts" in Hawaii is already figuring out what to have for dinner on Mars. It's thumbs up for wraps and vegetables, even when the vegetables are dehydrated or freeze-dried. It's thumbs down for pre-prepared meat dishes and most sugary drinks. But Tang is a hit, just as it was for astronauts 50 years ago.

That's the early word from the Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation, or HI-SEAS, a NASA-funded experiment that is forcing six non-astronauts to live on a Mars-style diet for four months. The findings could help the space agency determine what real astronauts eat and drink when they're sent to Mars in the 2030s or later. Click here. (5/24)

Alien Debris Found in Lunar Craters (Source: Discovery)
Strange minerals detected at the centers of impact craters on the moon may be the shattered remains of the space rocks that made the craters and not exhumed bits of the moon's interior, as had been previously thought. The foreign matter in the craters is probably asteroid debris and some could even be from Earth, which has thrown off its share of material as it's been battered by asteroids and comets over the eons.

The discovery comes not from finding anything new in the craters themselves, but by planetary scientists who were looking at models of how meteorite impacts affect the moon. Specifically, the researchers simulated some high-angle, exceptionally slow impacts -- at least slow compared to possible impact speeds -- and they were surprised at what they found. (5/26)

Space Act Deals Draw Lawmaker Scrutiny (Source: Florida Today)
NASA's increasing use of unconventional contracts to carry out some of its most important work is drawing heavy scrutiny on Capitol Hill. Several key Republicans are questioning whether the contracts, known as Space Act agreements, are compromising safety and security, or squandering tax dollars in order to speed development of missions or foster international partnerships.

NASA Inspector General Paul Martin also has begun an audit of how well the agency manages its more than 1,500 agreements with domestic and international partners. His findings are not expected until early next year. The contracts allow NASA to reach a "legally binding commitment" with an outside entity for a specific service, such as education outreach, experiments on the International Space Station, or the leasing of NASA facilities — without having to competitively bid for it.

Lately, they've been used to accelerate development of NASA's ambitious Commercial Crew and Commercial Cargo programs that work with private companies to replace the mothballed space shuttles with space taxis that will ferry astronauts and supplies to the International Space Station. Under the agreements, the Obama administration has allocated $1.5 billion to three firms. (5/26)

3D Printing Could Aid Deep-Space Exploration, NASA Chief Says (Source:
Technological advances are bringing down the cost of space research and exploration, with 3D printing poised to provide a transformative leap, NASA chief Charles Bolden says. During a tour of the space agency's Ames Research Center here Friday (May 24), Bolden lauded the scientific potential of PhoneSats, tiny and inexpensive spacecraft based on off-the-shelf smartphones. And he singled out 3D printing as a promising key enabler of humanity's push out into the solar system. (5/27)

NASA Telescope May Hunt for Rocky Mars-Size Planets Around 'Failed Stars' (Source:
NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope could be used to find Mars-size alien planets orbiting strange "failed stars" known as brown dwarfs, according to a new proposal by a multinational astronomy team. The group, led by a postdoctoral researcher at MIT, proposes to use the venerable observatory to find small, rocky exoplanets around brown dwarfs, which are larger than planets but too small to ignite the nuclear fusion reactions that power stars. (5/27)

Military's Secretive Space Plane Mission Passes 5-Month Mark (Source:
The U.S. Air Force's robotic X-37B space plane has quietly passed the five-month mark on its latest secret mission in Earth orbit. The unmanned X-37B spacecraft launched into space atop an Atlas 5 rocket from Florida’s Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Dec. 11, 2012, kicking off a mission whose objectives and payloads are classified. (5/28)

French Government Posts Space Counsellor in Bangalore (Source: Indian Express)
The French government posted Mat Weiss as its space counseller with diplomatic rank in Bangalore to strengthen and expand relations between its space agency and the Indian space agency. "Weiss will liaison with the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) on regular basis as we implement the agreement signed by the two governments during the visit of President Francois Hollande to India in February," French space agency CNES president Jean-Yves Le Gall said. (5/27)

What Is It About Sending People Into Space? (Source: The Independent)
To boldly go where no man has gone before. It is the most famously sexist split infinitive in the English language and yet it sums up neatly why we still need to have a human program of space exploration. Of course, the only “manned” space missions we currently have are focussed on sending astronauts to and from the International Space Station, a floating palace of technological wizardry weighing 3,600 tons and whizzing 28,000km an hour around the Earth at an altitude of more than 400km.

Any astronaut staying up there will see approximately 16 sunsets and sunrises in every 24-hour period. Whatever can be said about this kind of orbital space flight, it is not about boldly going where no-one had gone before – unless you include records for making circular journeys around Earth. So what is it about sending men and women into space? Why do we need to do it? As Jeremy Paxman so succinctly put it when interviewing Major Tim Peake last week; what’s the point?

Lord Martin Rees has explained his own schizophrenic attitude to human space exploration. As a scientist and practical man he is against on the grounds that it is a waste of money – you can get more bang for your bucks by sending probes and intelligent robots into space. But as a human being, he is in favour. By sending living, breathing sentient beings like ourselves into space we can come closer to the shear thrill and danger of travelling to a far-away place we can only imagine. (5/27)

Curiosity Tasked With Hunting for Elusive Martian Organics (Source:
Back in action after a month out of contact with Earth, NASA's Curiosity rover is renewing its quest to excavate a definitive signal of organic molecules - the building blocks of life - from the red planet's regolith and bedrock after a first taste of Martian soil turned up inconclusive results. Scientists say there should be plenty of organic molecules on Mars. The red planet has been pummeled by asteroids and comets since it formed, delivering organics to the surface over billions of years. (5/27)

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