May 15, 2014

Russian Proton-M Suffers Failure During Ekspress-AM4R Launch (Source:
Russia launched another of their Proton-M rockets on Thursday, with the mission tasked with lofting the Ekspress-AM4R telecommunications satellite into orbit. Launch of the Proton-M rocket took place from Launch Pad 39 at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan at 21:42 GMT. However, an unspecified failure was noted during third stage flight. The rocket and satellite are lost.

The Astrium-built Ekspress-AM4R – which now appears to be lost – was to provide digital television and radio broadcasting services across Russia, mobile presidential and government communications, multimedia services (telephony, video conferencing, data transmission, Internet access) as well as solutions based on VSAT network technologies. Itar-Tass says contact with the Proton was lost in 540th second of flight and nose cone did not separate from the rocket. Here is a list of recent Russian launch failures.(5/15)

What Russia's Anti-NASA Plan Means for Florida (Source: Orlando Business Journal)
Elon Musk was right when he implied the U.S. may find itself in trouble if it continued working  with Russia regarding its space industry. What do Russia's new sanctions mean for Central Florida's space industry, which is still struggling to find its footing after the space shuttle program came to a close in 2011? It means U.S.-based commercial space transport is even more important than ever, said Frank DiBello of Space Florida.

“This type of news even further magnifies the need for the U.S. to be aggressive about enabling commercial space market expansion ASAP. As with transport of crews to the ISS, we cannot wait much longer. Swift action must be taken to ensure our states and commercial U.S. companies have the tools they need — whether that be dedicated launch infrastructure or engines — to keep our national space program intact without reliance on others,” he said.

Expanding commercial space travel in the U.S. would result in more government contracts — outside of the typical cargo-only deliveries — and provide much-needed jobs for the region. However, the growth of that industry has been sluggish due to prolonged discussions on the future of space travel by officials in Washington and government budgetary cuts. (5/15)

NASA, Private Sector Must Join for Future Space Work (Source:
Darrell West from the Brookings Institution moderated a panel on the future of space exploration on Wednesday. He joined other experts in predicting that public-private partnerships will be at the forefront of the next wave of innovation. "Increasingly, we are seeing commercial firms launch satellites, supply the International Space Station or even offer the prospect of space tourism in the near future," West said. (5/14)

Craig Technologies Offers Scholarship for Embry-Riddle Summer Program (Source: SPACErePORT)
Craig Technologies will sponsor a scholarship to a student who is in financial need to a 5-day Mission Discovery, presented by ISSET & Higher Orbits, at Embry Riddle Aeronautical University on June 23-27. Click here for scholarship info, and here for info on the Mission Discovery program. (5/15)

Florida: Seizing the Lead in Drones (Source: Orlando Sentinel)
There has been significant buzz around the topic of unmanned aerial systems (UAS), more commonly known as drones, and the potential for testing and operating more of these in U.S. airspace in the near future. On Feb. 14, the FAA announced its intent to develop six UAS research and test sites around the country. While Florida was not selected as one of these sites, we moved ahead, providing friendly airspace and coordination to UAS commercial operators that wish to test and demonstrate their own capabilities.

Florida provides a multitude of capabilities that make it an ideal location to support UAS testing. We already have an established, vast network of controlled airspace; a rich tradition of aerospace expertise and innovation; simulation and research centers; unique FAA-approved next-generation systems; a skilled workforce; and a university network that offers UAS-centered curricula. (5/15)

Report Raises New Questions About Virgin Galactic (Source: NewSpace Journal)
While Virgin Galactic officials said at public forums in recent weeks that SS2 powered flights would resume soon, a new report suggests it may be some time before SS2 returns to the skies, let alone makes it into space. The Sunday Times reported that SS2′s carrier aircraft, WhiteKnightTwo (WK2), is grounded because of an issue with the aircraft’s carbon composite wings. The plane had been undergoing an annual inspection, as well as a replacement of its landing gear, when “defects” were found in the wings.

The Times report cited sources that described the defects as “multiple cracks,” but Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides told the paper that they were “adhesive imperfections” created by extra glue sticking out where sections of the wing were joined together. But sources describe them as cracks (not “imperfections”) running along the wing spars. “One particularly worrisome aspect is that nobody knows why or when they occurred.”

The Times article also raises a concern about Virgin Galactic's targeted altitude. A copy of the customer contract states that the company only guarantees to take people to an altitude of at least 50 miles (80 kilometers) above the Earth. That is below the “Kármán line” of 100 kilometers that is used as the de facto boundary of space by many organizations, including the X PRIZE Foundation. It’s also below what Virgin Galactic officials have publicly said as well, indicating that SS2 flights would go to at least 100 kilometers. The 50-mile mark, though, is the boundary used by NASA and the US Air Force in awarding astronaut wings. (5/15)

Virgin Responds to Reports About Altitude (Source: NewSpace Journal)
The Sunday Times reported that Virgin was only guaranteeing in its contracts that it would take people to altitudes of 50 miles (80 kilometers), below the 100-kilometer mark the company had previously said SS2 flights would achieve. Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides responded to an inquiry about the report by saying 100 kilometers was still the company’s goal.

“As we have always noted, we will have to prove our numerical predictions via test flights as we continue through the latter phase of the test program. Like cars, planes, and every other type of vehicle designed by humans, we expect our vehicle design and performance to evolve and improve over time.” (5/15)

Weird Loner Exoplanet Orbits Far From its Star (Source: Discovery)
An exoplanet that orbits its star at a whopping distance of 2,000 times the sun-Earth distance — taking 80,000 (Earth) years to complete one orbit — has been discovered. As far as exoplanets go, that’s the most extreme orbit found to date. This exo-oddball was found during an observing campaign seeking out new worlds around a group of young stars. GU Psc, a star that is roughly a third of the size of our sun, was recently identified as a member of the AB Doradus group and became a ripe target for this exoplanetary search. (5/15)

Alien Planet Camera is Most Sensitive Exoplanet Imager Yet (Source:
A newly christened telescope imager built to snap photos of alien planets around distant stars is the most sensitive camera of its kind, preliminary tests show. The Gemini Planet Imager (GPI), installed on the Gemini South telescope in Chile, is dedicated to directly imaging exoplanets. Every aspect of the device is tuned for maximum sensitivity to faint planets near bright stars, according to scientists using the instrument. (5/15)

Solar Wind 'Triggers Lightning on Earth' (Source: BBC)
Activity on the Sun is sparking lightning strikes here on Earth, a study suggests. Scientists have found that when gusts of high-speed solar particles enter our atmosphere, the number of lightning bolts increases. Because solar activity is closely monitored by satellites, it may now be possible to forecast when these hazardous storms will hit.

The scientists found that when the speed and intensity of the solar winds increased, so too did the rate of lightning strikes. The team said the turbulent weather lasted for more than a month after the particles hit the Earth. Using data from northern Europe, the researchers found there was an average of 422 lightning strikes in the 40 days after the high-speed solar wind arrived, compared with 321 strikes in the 40 days prior. (5/15)

Air Force Spending $60 Million for SpaceX U.S. Launches (Source: Bloomberg)
The U.S. Air Force is spending about $60 million and using as many as 100 people to certify billionaire Elon Musk’s SpaceX for launching military and spy satellites, according to the service’s top uniformed acquisition official. “We’ve got folks busting their butt to get SpaceX certified despite what everything in the media seems to say,” Lieutenant General Charles Davis said in an interview.

Davis said the Air Force is eager to find opportunities for SpaceX in its $67.6 billion launch program as he sought to rebut Musk’s contention that the service is protecting a monopoly for United Launch Alliance LLC, a joint venture of Lockheed Martin and Boeing. “We’ve had to react to SpaceX and members of Congress,” Davis said. “Now there’s allegations of cronyism; there’s allegations of ‘you just want to give money to ULA because you don’t want to have a new entrant certified.’”

Editor's Note: I've heard that the Air Force could take some lessons from NASA on timely launch vehicle certification, especially for the Falcon-9. (5/15)

Committee Questions Stability of U.S.-Russia Space Partnership (Source: House Science Committee)
Science, Space, and Technology Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX), Space Subcommittee Chairman Steven Palazzo (R-MS) and Space Subcommittee Vice Chairman Mo Brooks (R-AL) sent a letter to NASA Administrator Charles Bolden requesting additional information after press reports highlighted comments by Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister, Dmitry Rogozin, in which he announced a series of measures in response to U.S. sanctions.

Specifically, Mr. Rogozin said that Russia intends to reject a U.S. request to prolong the use of the International Space Station (ISS) beyond 2020. Mr. Rogozin also suggested that Russia could use the ISS without the United States. “Our international space partnerships, including our partnership with Russia, have historically endured political division,” the Congressmen wrote. “But Deputy Prime Minister Rogozin’s statements raise serious concerns about the strength of those partnerships.”

To better understand the potential implications of these comments, the Congressmen request a briefing from NASA on the current state of international negotiations related to the proposed extension of the ISS beyond 2020. They also request a list of all critical components, services, or capabilities that Russia provides that are necessary for the continued operation of the ISS beyond 2020. (5/15)

Iran to Host Russian Satellite Navigation Facility (Source: Space Daily)
A ground-based facility for the Russian Glonass satellite navigation system is to be built in Iran, according to a decision by an intergovernmental group on space cooperation. Currently, Glonass provides global coverage with the help of four such ground-based systems outside Russia: one in Brazil and three in the Antarctic. (5/15)

GOP Congressman Wants To Block Elon Musk From Competing In Space (Source: Forbes)
Supporting the elimination of competition – that notorious creator of delay and inefficiency – from NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, Robert La Branche, senior legislative assistant to Rep. John Culberson (R-TX), uttered these comments to the FAA’s Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee last week: “Paring down the number of competitors will help things along greatly because the funding won’t be split.”

Of course, what Mr. La Branche and his Congressional boss would really like to eliminate is that most inconvenient of competitors, the entrepreneur. And the very worst manifestation of entrepreneurial pestilence is, of course, California’s notorious Elon Musk. Mr. Musk’s SpaceX is now threatening to undermine the renowned efficiency of America’s Military-Industrial-Complex. A series of successful Falcon-9 & Dragon missions have left the traditional vendors looking overpriced and unambitious.

Musk's competitive approach puts unfair pressure on NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS), a multi-billion dollar state-owned rework of the space shuttle that is many years from flying anywhere. What’s a conservative congressperson to do? While it is surely coincidental that both the SLS and CST-100 programs are headquartered in Houston, we are lucky to have Messrs. La Branche and Culberson standing between us and the utter chaos of free market competition. Click here. (5/14)

How Badly Can Russia Put the Squeeze on NASA? (Source: Popular Mechanics)
The Obama Administration wants to play tough with the Russian government over its invasion of Crimea by imposing sanctions targeting the assets of key Russian officials. But Russia has struck back by squeezing the place where it has great leverage over the United States—the space program. Some of this may be simple posturing.

For one thing, NASA is only in the beginning stages of trying to talk its international partners into extending the life of the space station to 2024. "The Russians, frankly, they're not getting as much scientific return out of the station," says Jeffrey Hoffman, former NASA astronaut and current MIT professor, "and whether this is something that they might have done anyway, or they're using this as a way of putting pressure on NASA, I don't really know." (5/14)

SpaceX Dragon Capsule with NASA Cargo Set for Return to Earth (Source: SpaceRef)
NASA Television will provide live coverage of the departure of the SpaceX Dragon spacecraft from the International Space Station beginning at 9 a.m. EDT on Sunday, May 18. After leaving the space station, the capsule will splashdown in the Pacific Ocean carrying more than 3,500 pounds of NASA science samples and cargo.

Dragon is the only space station resupply spacecraft designed to return to Earth intact. Among the 3,563 pounds of return cargo are science samples from human research, biology and biotechnology studies, physical science investigations and education activities. The spacecraft also will return crew supplies, vehicle hardware and spacewalk equipment. (5/14)

The Great Filter: Why We Can't Find Alien Life (Source: Universe Today)
If a civilization continues to expand (especially at the technological pace we humans have experienced), it wouldn’t take all that long in the lifespan of the universe for artificial processes to be visible with our own telescopes. Yes, this is even taking into account a presumed speed limit of no more than the speed of light. So something could be preventing these civilizations from showing up. That’s an important part of the "Great Filter." Click here. (5/14)

First Competitive EELV Round Looks like a Two-horse Race (Source: Space News)
SpaceX likely will be the lone challenger to ULA for an initial round of competitively selected national security launches to be awarded starting next year, according to an Air Force official. Rocket builder Orbital Sciences Corp. and propulsion provider ATK Aerospace had said as recently as 2013 they were interested in launching national security space payloads and becoming new entrants for the Air Force’s Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program.

But according to Air Force Lt. Gen. Charles Davis, neither Orbital nor ATK has taken the necessary steps to certify their rockets to carry national security payloads. That likely means the companies will not be eligible to compete until the Air Force puts a second round of satellite launches out for competitive bids in 2018. “So far, as of yet, while they both expressed interest, neither has actually entered the certification process,” Davis said. “Neither one of them, if you will, is anywhere near the position SpaceX is in.” (5/14)

Orbital ATK Have Some Interesting Decisions Ahead (Source: SPACErePORT)
There was a time when ATK made every effort to avoid competing against the companies that used its solid rocket motors. ATK's merger with Orbital Sciences now makes it a major provider of launch services, with the industry's largest stable of vehicles ranging from small suborbital rockets up to small- and medium-class orbital launchers, and potentially a relatively heavy-lift vehicle for human spaceflight and large government and commercial payloads.

The merger could significantly reduce the cost of current Orbital rockets that use ATK motors. What remains to be seen is whether Orbital's Antares will swap its NK-33-powered first stage for an ATK solid motor, and whether ATK's erstwhile Liberty rocket will ever fly. Many believe that Liberty is a canceled program, but I have heard that ATK has only rendered it dormant while NASA prepares its shared-use launch pad (LC-39B) and figures out whether to use Shuttle-derived solid rocket motors (the same ones Liberty would use) for the agency's heavy-lift SLS rocket.

If NASA does go with ATK's solid boosters for SLS, it would help close the Liberty business case by using the same NASA-supported production capacity and the same NASA-supported launch pad infrastructure. SpaceX's aggressive efforts to open up the EELV contract to new competitors would, if successful, open up a new market for Liberty. (5/15)

Sagittarius A*: Black Hole or Wormhole? (Source: Medium)
One of the most extraordinary objects in the Milky Way galaxy is Sagittarius A* (pronounced Sagittarius A star). This small object is a bright source of radio waves in the constellation of Sagittarius that was discovered in 1974. Since then, astronomers have made numerous observations of Sagittarius A* and the stars nearby, some of which orbit it at very high velocity. That implies that Sagittarius A* is extremely massive and since it is so small it must also be hugely dense.

That’s why many astronomers believe this object is a supermassive black hole lying at the center of the galaxy. But there is another explanation—that this massive dense object is a wormhole that connects our region of space to another point in the universe or even to another part of the multiverse. (Astrophysicists have long known that wormholes are allowed by the laws of general relativity and may well have formed soon after the Big Bang.)

If Sagittarius A* is a wormhole, how can astronomers distinguish it from a black hole? Researchers have now calculated that plasma orbiting a black hole would look different to the same plasma orbiting a wormhole. They have calculated the difference and even simulated the resulting images that should be possible to collect using the next generation of interferometric telescopes. In other words, if there is a wormhole at the center of our galaxy, we should be up to see it within the next few years. (5/14)

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