April 2, 2014

Starting Point (Source: Aviation Week)
Reaction has been less than enthusiastic to NASA's plan to catch a small asteroid, nudge it into orbit around the Moon, and send astronauts to visit it. The Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) is the U.S. space agency's near-term goal, with a do-by date of 2025. Few planetary scientists think the return will justify the investment, and Congress is uninspired at best. it will probably never happen.

But the mission plan also can be seen as kind of a Trojan horse -- a sneaky way for the U.S. space industry to focus its intellectual resources on solving the problems that must be solved to land humans on Mars. Even if it never happens, the ARM concept has focused some of the best minds in the country on how to do it. That mental energy won't be wasted. The ideas it generates can be applied to a human Mars expedition, and they will -- someday. (4/2)

FAA, Commercial Spaceflight Industry Far Apart on Timing of Safety Rules (Source: Space News)
As Congress mulls changes that would relax a ban on federal regulation of passenger safety on commercial spaceflights, one industry executive here came down hard in favor of the current hands-off approach. When the statute was amended in 2004, record-setting, back-to-back piloted spaceflights by the privately operated SpaceShipOne rocketplane fueled expectations that commercial passenger service to suborbital space would materialize in short order. But the nascent industry has yet to launch a single paying customer.

Reauthorization legislation signed in 2012 extended a provision of U.S. commercial space law that barred the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation from writing commercial spaceflight passenger safety rules until October 2015, unless there is a major accident before then. Industry says this grace period prevents extensive regulation of never-before-flown systems from bogging down an already expensive and lengthy development process.

That hands-off mandate “should be extended indefinitely,” Jeff Greason of XCOR Aerospace, said. The grace, or learning, period was first introduced in 2004 — the year suborbital tourism line Virgin Galactic was founded — as an amendment to the 30-year-old Commercial Space Launch Act. The original law gave the FAA responsibility for licensing commercial space launches, protecting the uninvolved public from launch mishaps and crashes, and determining how much insurance commercial companies must carry for each launch. (5/2)

NASA Radar Watches Over California's Aging Levees (Source: Space Daily)
One morning in 2008, research scientist Cathleen Jones of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., was flying over the San Andreas fault near San Francisco, testing a new radar instrument built at JPL. As the plane banked to make a turn, she looked down to see the Sacramento River delta, a patchwork of low-lying lands crisscrossed by levees.

Jones was using an instrument that can measure tiny movements of the ground on the scale of less than half an inch (less than a centimeter). It's called the Uninhabited Aerial Vehicle Synthetic Aperture Radar (UAVSAR). "It struck me that this new instrument might be perfect for monitoring movement of levees," said Jones. Checking the scientific literature, she found that nothing like that had been attempted before in the delta. (4/2)

Did Microbes Cause Mass Extinction? (Source: Space Daily)
Volcanoes and asteroids are sometimes blamed for wiping out nearly all life on Earth 252 million years ago, but US research Monday suggested a more small-time criminal: microbes. These microbes, known as Methanosarcina, bloomed in the ocean on a massive and sudden scale, spewing methane into the atmosphere and causing dramatic changes in the chemistry of the oceans and the Earth's climate, according to the new theory. (3/31)

SpaceX Spaceport Environmental Report Might be Released in May (Source: Brownsville Herald)
Brownsville residents will have to wait a little while longer to receive news about SpaceX’s plans to build a launch pad here. Although the FAA has never scheduled a specific date for the release of the final environmental impact statement, which will help determine whether SpaceX can build a rocket site in Cameron County, its release has been much anticipated. A federal official said the report might be released in May.

FAA spokesman Hank Price said the agency is working with the consulting agencies to “resolve any potential issues.” The agency is conducting reviews of information contained in the draft environmental study and addressing public comments. The FAA hopes to release the final report next month, Price said. Price said the FAA has never set any specific date for the release of the final environmental impact statement, though The Brownsville Herald had anticipated it to be released this month. (4/1)

Volunteers Begin Space Confinement Mission in Hawaii (Source: KITV)
Six volunteers have begun a four-month assignment to live in a small dome on Hawaii's Mauna Loa volcano to gauge the effects of long-time confinement in space missions. The volunteers will largely be confined to a 1,000-square-foot space during the next round of the Hawaii Space Exploration and Analog Simulation research project.

The goal is to see what problems arise when people are confined to small spaces on long missions, such as a Mars expedition. Volunteers began their mission Friday. The project's principal investigator, Kim Binsted, says the mission could provide insight into what's called the "third-quarter syndrome," which refers to the psychological wall people can hit on long missions. (4/2)

New Logo for North Korea's Unfortunately-Named Space Agency NADA (Source: The Independent)
North Korea's space agency has released a new logo to mark its first anniversary, a blue circular emblem with orbiting rings and a constellation of stars that looks like the sort of fictionalised version of NASA you might find in a video game. The Korean Central News Agency made no mention of its foe's space efforts in its report on the new logo of course, explaining that its stars show the desire to "glorify Kim Il-sung's and Kim Jong-il's Korea as a space power".

More embarrassing than the lack of originality and Jetsons-esque font of its logo is the agency's name, NADA, which of course means 'nothing' in Spanish and is a fair representation of North Korea's achievements in space exploration thus far. North Korea has insisted that its foray into space is a peaceful one, but various world powers including the US and Japan have expressed concerns that it could bring together ballistic missile technology with its nuclear programme to create some sort of nightmarish long-range space weapon.

"The DPRK has pushed ahead with space development projects to turn the country into a space power, fully exercising its right to peaceful development of the space on a legal basis," the Korean news agency said. It added that NADA is calling for co-operation with other nations and rejects "double-standards in space activities and the weaponization of outer space." (4/2)

Investing in American Ingenuity (Source: NASA)
NASA is laser-focused on bringing more space launches back to America through partnerships with the U.S. commercial space industry. Already two companies – SpaceX and Orbital Sciences – are making regular cargo deliveries to the International Space Station, and later this year, contracts will be awarded to American companies to transport astronauts to the space station from American soil.

If Congress fully funds this plan, we’ll bring space launches back to the U.S. in 2017 — and stop shipping jobs and American tax dollars overseas. As President Obama has said, this is “a capture the flag moment for [U.S.] commercial space flight.” The growing U.S. commercial spaceflight industry is opening low-Earth orbit in ways that will improve lives on Earth, drive economic growth, create jobs and power innovations.

And it is enabling NASA to focus on developing the technologies and spacecraft needed to carry out bold missions to Mars and other deep space destinations. (4/2)

NASA Open To Renting SOFIA for $1 Million a Night (Source: Space News)
NASA has formally begun its search for deep-pocketed partners ready to pony up to keep the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) flying beyond this year. A Request for Information posted March 31 on the agency’s procurement website seeks input from potential partners interested in using the telescope-equipped 747SP aircraft for “scientific investigations or other potential uses.”

“Various partnership levels will be considered,” NASA says in the notice. “Partnerships can range from joining as a major partner to securing flights on a night-by-night basis. Costs are estimated at approximately $1 million per night for a dedicated mission.” NASA astrophysics officials recently warned that some of SOFIA’s 2014 budget might have to be put toward closeout activities, a scenario that threatens to reduce the observatory’s remaining flight hours.

The $12 million NASA is seeking for SOFIA for 2015, these officials say, is not enough to meet next year’s deadline for shutting down the program — unless the agency gets a head start this year. NASA’s sense of urgency is apparent in the March 30 solicitation. (4/2)

Gravitational Wave Discovery Might Not Have Inflation Origin (Source: Discovery)
Last month, astrophysicists announced a groundbreaking discovery: compelling evidence for gravitational waves had been found and the source of these waves might be the inflationary period just after the Big Bang. Compelling the evidence may be, but could there be another explanation?

In a paper last week, a trio of theoretical physicists pushed back on the historic Cosmic Extragalactic Polarization 2 (BICEP2) finding, suggesting that there may be another source of the gravitational waves: What if they weren’t generated during the rapid period of inflation?

“While the Inflationary signal remains the best motivated source (of the gravitational wave signal), the current measurement unfortunately still allows for the possibility that a comparable gravitational wave background might result from a self ordering scalar field transition that takes place later at somewhat lower energy,” the physicists write. (4/2)

Utah State Signs New Partner as Sensor Deal With GeoMetWatch Unravels (Source: Space News)
Venture-capital firm Tempus Global Data has taken over the job of commercializing Utah State University’s hyperspectral sounder instrument as a hosted payload on a commercial telecommunications satellite after a falling out between the university and its former partner, GeoMetWatch, university and Tempus officials said March 31.

Tempus Chief Executive Alan Hall, while acknowledging that he will have to move fast to meet a deadline on the prospective initial commercial satellite host, said he is confident of Tempus’ ability to raise the approximately $150 million it will need to place the STORM — Sounding & Tracking Observatory for Regional Meteorology — aboard Hong Kong-based AsiaSat’s AsiaSat 9 satellite. (4/1)

SpaceX Looking for New Funding (Source: Quartz)
Elon Musk’s 12-year-old venture is in discussions with investors to see if they’re interested in sinking fresh cash into the space transportation company, Quartz has learned. SpaceX has reached out to venture capital funds who invested money during previous rounds, a source familiar with the fund raising told Quartz. The investment round is expected to close in the next few weeks and could raise anywhere from $50 million to more than $200 million, a source said. (4/2)

The Shuttle Launch Pad Aborts (Source: Space Safety)
Throughout its 30-year career— consciously or unconsciously— the space shuttle was acknowledged to be one of the most dangerous piloted space vehicles ever brought to operational status. Although its first four teams of astronauts had ejection seats, their usefulness and survivability were questioned from the outset, and from STS-5 and the increase in crew size their inclusion became so impractical that they were done away with.

Little escape capability of substance was available until after the separation of the Solid Rocket Boosters (SRBs), two minutes into flight, and NASA engineers worried constantly about the dangers of a failure of the shuttle’s three main engines. On five occasions, between June 1984 and August 1994, a handful of shuttle crews heard over the intercom a four-letter acronym that shook them to the very core: RSLS, denoting a Redundant Set Launch Sequence, indicative of a harrowing engine shutdown on the pad, right before launch. (4/1)

Thuraya Hosts Space Pioneer Event In Abu Dhabi (Source: Abu Dhabi City Guide)
Thuraya Telecommunications Company, a leading Mobile Satellite Services (MSS) operator hosted its Space Pioneer event in Abu Dhabi last Thursday. The event was under the patronage of Her Excellency, Sheikha LubnaAl Qasimi, Minister of International Development,and was attended by the industry’s top executives, government officials and dignitaries in an evening of networking and education.

The event was a celebration of the UAE’s burgeoning satellite and space industry as well as Thuraya’s milestone achievements in innovating mobile satellite solutions. The event also honored space pioneer and former American astronaut, Dr. Buzz Aldrin, who was the lunar module pilot on Apollo 11, the first manned moon landing in history. As the second man to set foot on the moon, Dr. Aldrin is a symbol of bold innovation in space exploration. (4/1)

House Science Committee Turning Into a National Embarrassment (Source: Scientific American)
A few days back I wrote a post explaining why I am all for private support of basic science, especially in an age when government funding and support is flagging. My feelings were simply reinforced when I came across this news piece documenting the shameful behavior of Republican members of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology in denying climate change and harassing John Holdren, President Obama’s science advisor.

The debacle was part of a hearing in which the members were supposed to discuss the upcoming 2015 budget with Holdren. Instead the proceedings turned into a mixture of hostile heckling and insulting sarcasm. This was black comedy that would have been mildly humorous had it not been real. The Republican members of the committee made it clear that not only do they lack the slightest interest in addressing climate change but they are about as ignorant about the nuances of science as a stone.

No wonder that scientists like me find it refreshing when we hear about billionaires appreciating and funding basic research. Pretty much all politicians in this country seem to have lost respect not just for the findings of science but for the basic nature of the scientific method, but let’s be clear: one party disproportionately more than the other is holding science back. (4/1)

Florida Capitol Provides Home for Annual Space Club Award (Source: NSCFL)
The Florida Committee of the National Space Club sponsors an annual Forrest S. McCartney National Defense Space Award, which recognizes significant space-related achievements and contributions made by Department of Defense personnel while on duty in the State of Florida. The award now has a permanent showcase on the top floor (22nd floor) of the state's Capitol Building in Tallahassee. (4/1)

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