July 12, 2013

Environmentalists: Don't Allow Spaceport to be Built in Wildlife Refuge (Source: Orlando Sentinel)
A coalition of Florida environmental groups has called in the cavalry — this time to help stop a proposed spaceport inside the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. They're asking that top officials at the U.S. Department of the Interior, which manages the 140,000-acre sanctuary, become "directly involved" in plans to build a launchpad there, according to a new letter.

Their aim is to offset the power of the FAA, which is the lead agency in determining whether the state can locate a 150-acre spaceport at the northern boundary of Kennedy Space Center. "The FAA is not known as a very environmentally friendly agency," said Charles Lee of Audubon Florida, one of several groups to sign the July 3 letter. State officials bill the launchpad as critical to helping the KSC area recover from the 2011 retirement of the space shuttle, which cost thousands of local jobs. 

Editor's Note: Unfortunately, while these environmental groups ratchet up their efforts, Space Florida will be reducing their visibility on efforts to support the initiative. This is because they have entered an official study period for the project, where an FAA-approved environmental contractor will conduct the environmental impact study. (7/10)

Rep. Smith and Bolden Square Off on Asteroid Mission (Source: Space Policy Online)
Space/Science Committee Chair Lamar Smith (R-TX) and NASA's Charlie Bolden squared off in dueling op-ed pieces in The Hill newspaper over the Obama Administration's proposed Asteroid Retrieval Mission (ARM). Smith's argument is that ARM is too costly even at the $2.6 billion level estimated by the Keck Institute for Space Studies (KISS) and misses the mark as an inspiring mission: "It's time the administration put forward an inspirational goal worthy of a great space-faring nation. And the asteroid retrieval mission is not it."

Not surprisingly, Bolden sees it differently. In his op-ed the same day, he invoked the themes of planetary defense, potential resource utilization, technology development and moving closer to the goal of sending people to Mars as justifying the program: "That is why we choose to go." Meanwhile, a Democratic alternative to the House Republicans' NASA bill proposed by Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD) was defeated on a party-line vote. 

Near earth asteroids are simply one of a list of potential intermediate destinations that also includes the Moon, cis-lunar space, Lagrange points and the moons of Mars that may be pursued for human exploration as long as they "make significant contributions" to the goal of landing humans on Mars. The Edwards bill also would have required a study by the National Academies on the planetary protection ramifications of missions to the poles of the Moon, near-earth asteroids, the moons of Mars, and the surface of Mars. (7/11)

Stutters in Earth's Spin Change Day Length (Source: New Scientist)
Three times in the last decade Earth's spin has missed a beat. These seemingly random blips cause days to temporarily stretch and shrink. They have emerged from the clearest ever view of how long a day is. Earth's spin fluctuates as the oceans and the atmosphere push and tug on the planet's spin But these small daily variations hide longer-term patterns, some well known, some not.

The analysis threw up a well-known cycle due to slow changes at the Earth's core, which lengthen days by a few milliseconds over roughly a decade, then shrink them down again. There's also a 5.9-year cycle, due to a persistent wobble between the fluid outer core and surrounding mantle, which changes day length by fractions of milliseconds a year.

When researchers stripped away both of these regular cycles, sudden unexpected jumps in day length emerged from the calculations. Three times in recent years – in 2003, 2004, and 2007 – our planet's spin has stuttered. The jumps interrupt the longer-term changes by a fraction of a millisecond, and last several months before going back to normal. (7/10)

When a Soviet Robot Raced Apollo 11 to the Moon (Source: Discovery)
Apollo 11 wasn’t the only mission in orbit around the moon on July 20, 1969. The crew was joined by a plucky little robotic Soviet lander, Luna 15, which was racing the American mission to return a lunar soil sample to Earth. Luna 15 was part of the Soviet Luna program conceived by the Soviet Chief Designer Sergei Korolev more than a decade earlier. In 1955, two years before his R-7 rocket carried Sputnik into orbit, he imagined a more powerful version that could carry significant payloads to the moon.

He wanted to explore our satellite with a fleet of robots, some in orbit, some on the surface, and, ultimately, he wanted to bring a soil sample back to study on Earth. Luna 15 was at least the second sample return mission the Soviets launched; another spacecraft launched in June 1969 had failed to reach orbit. But Luna 15 didn’t have any trouble leaving the Earth. On July 13, three days before the Apollo 11 crew left the Earth, Luna 15 began its lunar journey. Click here. (7/11)

Gas, Not Planets, May be Source of Rings Around Stars (Source: Science News)
Rings around distant stars aren’t necessarily a sign of orbiting planets. That’s the conclusion of a simulation that challenges a tantalizing notion in planetary science: that elliptical voids in a star’s dusty debris disk betray a planet’s presence. Instead, the rings could result from interactions between the dust and gas. “People claim too often that the rings we see are due to planets,” says planetary astrophysicist Wladimir Lyra of Caltech. (7/10)

Solar System has Trailing Tail, Just Like Comet (Source: AP)
NASA can prove it now. Our solar system has a tail, just like comets. Scientists revealed images Wednesday showing the tail emanating from the bullet-shaped region of space under the grip of the sun, including the solar system and beyond. The region is known as the heliosphere, thus the name heliotail. The findings are based on data from by NASA's Interstellar Boundary Explorer, or IBEX. The Earth-orbiting spacecraft was launched in 2008. (7/10)

NASA and Japanese Space Agency Discuss Space Cooperation (Source: NASA)
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden and the president of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) met in Washington Wednesday, July 10,  to discuss the importance of international cooperation in space, especially the continued support for the International Space Station. Bolden and Naoki Okumura also discussed NASA's plans for a new asteroid initiative, previously announced in President Obama's fiscal year 2014 budget proposal. This is Okumura's first bilateral meeting with NASA since being named JAXA's president in April. (7/10)

5 Popular Misconceptions About NASA (Source: Huffington Post)
Me: "Didn't you hear? NASA's planning to visit an Asteroid." Steve: "Wait, didn't NASA get shut down after the Space Shuttle?" Me: (Uh oh, not this conversation again...) While Steve's facts may be fuzzy, one thing is clear: despite NASA's award-winning social media and web outreach efforts, there are still massive gaps between the public's perception of the agency, and the reality. And unless you are a big space geek like me with daily space Google alerts, it's not unreasonable to be a bit confused.

So why does this matter? For one, 16.8 billion of our tax dollars are funding the agency. Second, NASA is currently up for reauthorization in Congress, and a recent draft bill includes a proposal to cut the agency's funding by $1 billion and redistribute what's left towards some pretty controversial projects -- like sending humans to an asteroid. Click here. (7/10)

Doing Business in Space (Source: Bdaily)
Earlier this year, Bdaily ran a piece called entrepreneurialism on the final frontier in which we spoke to Indian-born business magnate Naveen Jain. He talked about his ambitions to pioneer private space exploration and mining of asteroids rich in minerals. This might seem a little sci-fi to most people, but the reality is here and the space race is now in the hands of private companies, all hungry to crack the final frontier. Click here. (7/10)

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