February 19, 2014

'House of SpaceX' Catches Netflix Show's Eye (Source: Discovery)
When Francis and Claire Underwood, the conniving, cut-throat couple portrayed by Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright on Netflix’s Emmy Award-winning political drama “House of Cards,” decide to strategically unload a press relations guru who has outlasted his usefulness, their operatives arrange for a lucrative job offer in private industry to woo him away.

“There’s room to grow at SpaceX,” the hapless flak tells a poker-faced Claire when he tenders his resignation in Episode 7 of the newly released Season 2. It’s an ironic choice given the revolving door on the press office at SpaceX, a very real company based in Hawthorne, Calif., that is owned and operated by technology entrepreneur Elon Musk.

Emily Shanklin, SpaceX’s senior director of marketing and communications, is still serving double duty as the head of media relations since the abrupt departure of PR director Christina Ra last September. Ra’s predecessor, Katherine Nelson, ran the show for a year. Kirstin Brost Grantham held the job for two years. For a short time,  SpaceX also had former Orlando Sentinel space reporter Bobby Block working as its vice president of corporate communications. (2/19)

New Project Aims To Offer Free Global WiFi Service From Outer Space (Source: Red Orbit)
A project being incubated by the Media Development Investment Fund (MDIF) has ambitious plans to beam WiFi to everyone on the planet for free. The organizations says that it is planning a project called “Outernet,” which will utilize a satellite constellation to make Internet universally-accessible and for no cost.

Outernet says on its site that there are more computing devices in the world than people, but only 60 percent of the world has access to the Internet. Outernet will consist of hundreds of low-cost, miniature satellites in Low Earth Orbit, each of which will be receiving data streams from a network of ground stations. These satellites will be transmitting the data in a continuous loop until new content is received. (2/17)

One-Way Trip to Mars Prohibited in Islam (Source: Khaleej Times)
Promoting or being involved in a one-way trip to the Red Planet is prohibited in Islam, a fatwa committee under the General Authority of Islamic Affairs and Endowment in the UAE has ruled. “Such a one-way journey poses a real risk to life, and that can never be justified in Islam,” the committee said.  “There is a possibility that an individual who travels to planet Mars may not be able to remain alive there, and is more vulnerable to death.”

Whoever opts for this “hazardous trip”, the committee said, is likely to perish for no “righteous reason”, and thus will be liable to a “punishment similar to that of suicide in the Hereafter”.

The committee, presided by Professor Dr Farooq Hamada, said: “Protecting life against all possible dangers and keeping it safe is an issue agreed upon by all religions and is clearly stipulated in verse 4/29 of the Holy Quran: Do not kill yourselves or one another. Indeed, Allah is to you ever Merciful.” (2/19)

Indian Team Among Leaders in Google Moon Prize (Source: Times of India)
This is turning out to be a David vs Goliath story. A poorly funded, rag-tag team in India is now among the top contenders for the Google Lunar XPrize, the grand global competition to land a robotic spacecraft on the Moon by December next year. Team Indus has just been named among the five finalists for what are called milestone prizes, teams that have achieved certain technological landmarks and appear closest to reaching the final objective.

The competition carries $40 million in prize money and the organizers' objective is to develop a spacecraft that can do a soft landing on the Moon. They have to develop a rover that will dismount from the landing craft and travel 500 metres on the lunar surface. And they have to develop an imaging system on the rover that will capture high quality images and video of the lunar surface and transmit them to Earth. (2/19)

Moon Rover Teams Gear Up for $6 Million X Prize Purse (Source: IEEE Spectrum)
Now might be the time to start keeping closer tabs on the Google Lunar X Prize. Today, five of the 18 registered teams in the competition have been named finalists for interim "Milestone Prizes". Over the coming months, they'll work to demonstrate how far they've progressed in three categories: landing systems, rover mobility, and imaging subsystems. All three technologies will be needed to make it to the moon and nab the top prize (set at $US 20 million, minus any money awarded in the interim). (2/19)

Europe To Build A New Planet-hunting Spacecraft (Source: Forbes)
In the past few years, major space observatories like NASA’s Kepler have identified an increasing number of planets beyond our solar system, or exoplanets, including a number in the habitable zone where conditions to support life could be present. Now, with Kepler on its last legs mechanically, ESA has announced a new mission to launch a space-based observatory armed with 34 small telescopes and cameras to hunt for planets circling as many as a million stars spread across half the sky.

Dubbed PLATO, for Planetary Transits and Oscillations of stars, the mission is aiming for a planned launch date of 2024. PLATO will use the popular transit method of spotting potential planets, looking for tiny, regular dips in the brightness of distant stars that could be caused by the transit of planets in orbit in front of them. (2/19)

California's Drought Is So Bad, You Can See It From Space (Source: Huffington Post)
Though California has seen some rain this month, the desperately needed precipitation is sadly just a drop in the bucket of the state's year-long drought. A satellite photo released by NASA on Sunday shows that the devastating effects of the drought can be seen even from space. Click here. (2/18)

Boeing Dispute with U.S. Air Force over Rocket Prices Nears Resolution (Source: Space News)
Boeing and the U.S. Air Force appear to be nearing a forced conclusion of their multiyear dispute on prices for three Delta 4 rocket missions following late-December hearings before a U.S. government arbitration body, the company said. Boeing said a decision by the Armed Services Board of Contract Appeals (ASBCA) is expected by May on whether Boeing and its customer, United Launch Alliance (ULA) of Denver, will be reimbursed for what they say were three U.S. Air Force missions whose Delta rockets were badly underpriced. (2/19)

Third Virgin Galactic Executive Departs as New CFO Named (Source: Parabolic Arc)
For a company that is only months away from flying into space with paying customers, Virgin Galactic is experiencing a lot of high-level turnover. Three top level executives have left over the past two months. Today, the company announced that it had hired John S. Rego as its new chief financial officer (CFO). He replaces Ken Sunshine, who joined the company as CFO in July 2011. (2/18)

The Revival of NASA and the United States’ Thirst for Discovery (Source: Highlander News)
In the spring of 2013, Congress cut the United States’ federal budget by about $1.2 trillion by implementing a “budget sequester.” The sequester butchered the budgets of federally funded agencies, such as NASA. NASA’s budget was sliced by about $1.2 billion, which caused the agency to immediately suspend all outreach and educational programs in an effort to save future space missions. NASA was in peril and the future of space exploration looked bleak.

However, at the start of 2014, NASA received relieving news that its budget would be increased by $800 million. While it is relieving to know NASA’s funding will be supported this year, it is important to realize the unwarranted economic pressure put on NASA and the federal government’s misordering of national priorities. Yes, the increased funding is welcomed news, but compared to NASA’s height in the 1960s, this year’s budget is a fraction of what it once was.

Although NASA receives a miniscule amount of federal funding today, the agency continues to make important endeavors that greatly expand our knowledge of the universe. The future of NASA’s missions are dependent on the support of federal funding, and with an increased budget, NASA will be able to follow through on missions now in planning. (2/18)

More Astronauts on TV Shows (Source: Collect Space)
NASA astronaut Mike Massimino is back on "The Big Bang Theory" in a new episode of the hit CBS comedy, but he soon won't be the only spaceman on network television. Massimino, a veteran of two actual space shuttle flights to upgrade the Hubble Space Telescope and one made-for-TV mission to the International Space Station, is making his fifth cameo appearance on "The Big Bang Theory."

In ABC's upcoming series, actors — and actresses — will take on the roles of historical NASA astronauts, and their spouses. JoAnna Garcia Swisher is first lead to be announced for "Astronaut Wives Club," a 10-episode series based on Lily Koppel's same-titled 2013 book about the women behind America's first astronauts. (2/18)

One Hotel Mogul's Next Frontier: Outer Space (Source: CNBC)
A tall hangar rises out of nowhere, surrounded by concertina wire and tumbleweeds on the barren outskirts of North Las Vegas. In this dry, unforgiving place, Robert Bigelow is designing housing that will have to withstand much harsher conditions.

Here, inside Bigelow Aerospace, the man who made a fortune putting up hotels is now building inflatable space habitats. Seven years ago, he successfully launched two test habitats into orbit to obtain data about their strength, durability and radiation protection. Click here. (2/18)

Russia to Deploy up to 7 Foreign Glonass Ground Stations in 2014 (Source: Space Daily)
Russia will deploy up to seven ground stations for Glonass satellite navigation system monitoring and augmentation outside of the national territory in 2014, Glonass/GNSS Forum Association Executive Director Vladimir Klimov said at a conference held on the Security Technologies exhibition sidelines. (2/19)

ISS as a Nobel Peace Prize Nominee? Why Not? (Source: Space News)
When a number of my former students approached me with the idea to nominate the international space station for the Nobel Peace Prize, I must admit I initially waived it as an interesting but unrealistic idea. I have in many of my lectures told students about my earlier days, when I worked with astronauts in Star City in the early ’90s, and explained to them the growing respect between Russians and Americans during that period.

In my view, space is indeed a strong catalyst for peaceful international cooperation, but a potential Nobel Peace Prize winner? Still, the more I thought about it, the more I started to see the logic behind this thought. In order to be sure that there was no basic obstacle I looked into the roots of the Nobel Prize and the original thoughts behind it.

Alfred Nobel described his now-namesake prize as follows: “to the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.” Although the original text specifies “person,” the Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded 25 times to collectivities, such as the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. (2/18)

Lunar Property Rights - Hard Cheese (Source: The Economist)
For schemes in space (such as mining fusion fuel from the moon, a perennial favourite of wild-eyed space cadets) to be worthwhile commercially, Bigelow Aerospace says a legal framework for private lunar property is needed, and reckons the American government should be involved in creating one. Consequently, two months ago Bigelow  formally submitted a related request to the FAA. The case is now being vetted by agencies including the State Department, Department of Defense, NASA and the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP).

The application is not directly seeking private property rights or exclusive ownership of lunar resources; the company is requesting government, and by extension, Outer Space Treaty, assurance that its private spacecraft can run without interference or possible collisions with licensed vessels already in operation. In other words, Bigelow Aerospace is asking for the ability to use the moon and its resources in order to shore up its capital investments.

Whether such usage equates to property rights or ownership is an international legal debate. Bigelow lawyers point out that an effective national and international licensing system has meant that satellite companies operate successfully and peacefully without actually owning the space they occupy. The company also contends that FAA licensing requires a 200km (124 mile) buffer zone of operation for each spacecraft. This means the government is obliged already to maintain safe operations in space, limit liability and prevent crashes between private entities that could cause damage on and around the Moon. (2/18)

Government Shutdown Could Mean Long Delay for NASA Heliophysics Mission (Source: Space News)
The launch of a flagship heliophysics mission that has already cost NASA more than $800 million could slip more than a year because of the partial government shutdown this past Octobe. The Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) mission, which is in the middle of thermal vacuum testing, could launch “anywhere from early 2015 to later than that,” said Goddard Director Christopher Scolese. Asked about worse-case scenarios, Scolese allowed for the possibility that the mission will not launch until 2016. (2/18)

Famous Star Explosion Lit by Ultrafast Mach 1,000 Shock Wave (Source: Space.com)
Astronomers studying the remnants of a well-known stellar explosion discovered a blisteringly fast shock wave that is rushing inward at 1,000 times the speed of sound, lighting up what remains of the powerful cosmic explosion. When a star reaches the end of its life, it explodes in a supernova that can briefly outshine entire galaxies.

Typically, these blasts fade away after a few weeks or months, but the material left behind from these violent explosions can continue to glow for hundreds or thousands of years. Scientists have now observed a formidable inward-racing shock wave that keeps one of these stellar corpses glowing. (2/18)

Wheel Concerns Prompt New Route for Mars Rover (Source: SpaceFlight Now)
Planners in charge of plotting the course of NASA's Curiosity rover, which is trekking toward a massive mountain on the red planet, have selected a route with fewer rock hazards in lieu of alternate paths that could exacerbate damage to the robot's wheels. The rover traversed a dune in early February to take a southwestward route toward the rover's next science target, a junction of different rock types where scientists are considering using the rover's drill. (2/18)

What Are Mercury's Hollows?
(Source: Planetary Society)
Whenever I talk about the MESSENGER mission to Mercury, one discovery that I always mention is these strange features that the science team has dubbed "hollows." Nothing quite like them has been seen on any other world. A geomorphic mystery, they're irresistible to geologists: a wholly new kind of landform to explain, unique to the innermost planet. Click here. (2/18)

DOD Contracts Hit New Low Before January Slump (Source: Bloomberg)
Pentagon contracts slid 66% in December, reaching a low not seen in 22 months — and that new low comes before the traditional January defense-deal slump. "The budget is a good thing overall but it doesn't mean there's a new day coming," said Larry Allen, president of Va.-based consulting firm Allen Federal Business Partners. "We're still in an era where there's less money than there has been historically." (2/17)

Digital Technology Undergirds New NASA, FAA AeroMACS (Source: GovTech)
The Aeronautical Mobile Airport Communications System, or AeroMACS, is a new digitally based, wireless air traffic control system aimed at making airport traffic safer and more efficient and it's a system Behnam Kamali, professor of electrical and computer engineering at Georgia's Mercer University, is helping with his research on the use of electronic repeaters. Kamali presented his findings to NASA in 2010; this year the FAA will roll out AeroMACS for tests at nine U.S. airports. (2/17)

World’s Largest Rocket Contest Launches Next Generation of Leaders (Source: SpaceRef)
More than 700 student teams representing 48 states, the District of Columbia and the U.S. Virgin Islands are preparing for the 2014 Team America Rocketry Challenge, the world’s largest student rocket contest and a key piece of the aerospace industry’s strategy to build a stronger U.S. workforce in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

The competition challenges each team to design and build a model rocket that can travel to a height of 825 feet and back within 48 to 50 seconds. Each rocket must also deploy two identical parachutes carrying precious cargo — two raw eggs that must return safely to the ground undamaged. TARC poses a different challenge each year, and 2014’s dual-parachute requirement combined with the tight timing window and other structural criteria make this contest the most difficult in the competition’s 12-year history.

Teams have until March 31 to launch and submit their qualifying flight scores — scores are determined by any deviation from the specified height or time requirements — and those within the top 100 will advance to the final flyoff on May 10 at Great Meadow in The Plains, Virginia. Click here. (2/18)

Kate Upton...Zero Gravity...Bikini...Va-Va-Voom! (Source: Parabolic Arc)
Kate Upton and Sports Illustrated (SI) have taken swimsuit modeling where it’s never gone before. Flying with Zero Gravity Corporation (ZERO-G), Upton flipped, floated and modeled in true weightlessness – as if in outer space – for SI’s 50th anniversary Swimsuit issue. SI’s landmark Swimsuit Production hit newsstands today, complete with a major package, Upton, floating in zero gravity.

The shoot took place on March 18, 2013; Upton and ZERO-G flew out of Space Coast Regional Airport in Titusville, Florida. A specially modified Boeing-727, known as G-FORCE ONE®, performed a series of 17 parabolas – 13 zero gravity and four replicating lunar gravity – as Upton bounced and soared through the plane for the cameras. Upton’s weightless experience was not simulated; ZERO-G is the first and only FAA-approved provider of commercial weightless airline flights for the public. Click here. (2/18)

Cosmopolitan: Upton in "Special Zero G Chamber Aboard a Space Shuttle" (Source: SPACErePORT)
Should we expect more from Cosmo? The women's magazine commented thusly on Kate Upton (who hails from the Space Coast, by the way) and her Zero-G photo shoot: "photos of Kate floating in a special Zero G chamber aboard a space shuttle at Cape Canaveral in Florida." (2/18)

Missing Galaxy Mass Found (Source: Nature)
Results released last year suggest that as much as 40% of galaxy-cluster mass is missing when compared with the amount of clustering predicted. The findings have led theorists to propose physics beyond the standard model of cosmology to make up the difference. But a reconciliation could be in the offing, using improved measurements of the cluster masses.

Some theorists have played with the characteristics of neutrinos — ghostly, nearly massless sub­atomic particles — as a way of compensating. On 6 February, for example, physicist Wayne Hu and his colleagues published a theory that the mismatch could be bridged if the three known types of neutrino were significantly heavier than thought, or if there were a fourth, as yet undiscovered species of neutrino.

Now two studies suggest that clusters actually have more mass than Planck estimated — and thus that there is little need for exotic physics. Both studies used gravitational lensing, a technique that weighs clusters by measuring how much their gravitational fields distort light that passes through them. Click here. (2/18)

Latest Commercial Supply Ship Set for Destruction (Source: SEN)
Astronauts on the Space Station cast adrift the Cygnus spacecraft that was the latest commercial vessel to bring them supplies from home, sending it to a fiery demise in the atmosphere. The Orbital Sciences ship had spent more than a month attached to the space station after arriving on Jan. 12 with 1,261 kg of cargo. Cygnus will fire its engines twice, sending it out of orbit for a destructive re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere, and it will burn up over the Pacific Ocean. (2/18)

Indian Funding to Boost Manned Space Project (Source: Times of India)
India's space manned flight project got a boost on Monday with the Union interim budget hiking the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) Mark 3 program's allocation from Rs 10 crores to Rs 171 crores. The overall budget for India's space program was increased from Rs 5172 crores to Rs 7238 crores. The budget has also hiked the allocation for the human space flight program from 9.19 crores to Rs 17.05 crores.

The increase in the funding comes close on the heels of the unveiling of a crew module fabricated by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited. The module was handed over to the Indian Space Research Organization. The module will be tested when the GSLV Mk 3 makes it maiden flight sometime this year. ISRO chairman K Radhakrishnan said that re-entry technologies and flight dynamics of the crew module will be evaluated and will be recovered about 400 to 500 km away from Port Blair. (2/18)

It’s Snack Time in the Cosmos (Source: New York Times)
For the first time, astronomers may have a chance to watch as a giant black hole consumes a cosmic snack. In March or April, a gas cloud that has been hurtling toward the center of the Milky Way is expected to collide with Sagittarius A*, a black hole that lies just 26,000 light-years from Earth. (The actual event, of course, took place 26,000 years ago.) The cloud is as massive as three Earths — no match for the black hole, which has the mass of four million suns.

“This is a rare opportunity to witness spoon-feeding of a black hole,” said Avi Loeb, a theoretical astrophysicist at Harvard. “Will the gas reach the black hole, and if so, how quickly? Will the black hole throw up or spit the gas out in the form of an outflow or a jet? If the black hole devours a sizable chunk of the cloud, a digestive process that could take many months to years, fireworks could ensue. Click here. (2/18)

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