June 19, 2014

Five Things We'll Learn from Orion's First Flight Test (Source: Space Daily)
All the superlatives associated with Orion's first mission this year - farthest a spacecraft for humans has gone in 40 years, largest heat shield, safest vehicle ever built - can be dazzling, no doubt. But the reason engineers are chomping at the bit for Orion's first mission is the promise of crucial flight test data that can be applied to the design for future missions.

Orion only has two flight test opportunities before astronauts climb aboard for the first crewed mission in 2021 - so gleaning the maximum information possible from Exploration Flight Test (EFT)-1 in December (and later, Exploration Mission-1 in 2017) is of the highest priority. Here are the top five things engineers will be paying attention to: 1) Launch abort separation; 2) parachute deployment; 3) heat shield protection; 4) radiation levels; and 5) computer function. Click here. (6/19)

Sierra Nevada to Acquire ORBITEC (Source: SNC)
Sierra Nevada Corp. has signed a definitive purchase agreement to acquire the Orbital Technologies Corp. (ORBITEC) as a wholly-owned subsidiary of SNC. ORBITEC is a leading subsystems integrator and high technology development company based in Madison, Wisconsin. ORBITEC’s strong liquid rocket propulsion, life science and support, and fire suppression technology portfolio will enhance both SNC Space Systems’ Propulsion and Spacecraft Systems’ product lines.

SNC has been working with ORBITEC for over three years. ORBITEC is the lead for the Environmental Control and Life Support Systems (ECLSS) and Thermal Control Systems (TCS) for SNC, providing reliable living conditions including temperature and humidity control to support the astronauts during their journeys on SNC’s Dream Chaser spacecraft. Recently, SNC selected ORBITEC to provide the RCS engines for Dream Chaser using green, nontoxic propellants. (6/19)

Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin Space Rides to be 'Thrilling' But Safe (Source: Puget Sound Business Journal)
A former NASA astronaut is helping Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin give paying passengers a really good ride. “We want to make sure it’s capable of carrying people; not just a ride that’s safe, but a ride that’s as enjoyable and interesting and thrilling as it can be,” said Nicholas Patrick, Blue Origin’s “human integration architect" in an interview after the Puget Sound Business Journal's aerospace event Wednesday at the Museum of Flight.

While Amazon’s Fire Phone rode in on a wave of publicity Wednesday, company CEO Bezos keeps his 300-person aerospace company Blue Origin hidden. The secretive space launch endeavor is headquartered in Kent, and also operates a test launch facility on Bezos' property in Texas. Patrick shared some updates about Blue Origin after the PSBJ’s Business Journal Live breakfast event on space exploration and the business potentials for the region.

The biggest news is that in April Blue Origin started with the process of getting its home-grown BE-3 rocket engine certified for use. Patrick declined to share a timetable for a Blue Origin launch, which was delayed by a crash in 2011. The most recent release on the Blue Origin website is of the October, 2012 test of the space capsule’s escape system. (6/18)

Duo Tries on Spacesuits While Microgravity Science Continues (Source: Space Daily)
The six-member Expedition 40 crew is counting down to a Thursday morning spacewalk. Meanwhile, the orbital residents are conducting an array of international science and station maintenance tasks. A pair of cosmonauts spent Tuesday morning conducting a dress rehearsal of Thursday's spacewalk. They donned their Russian Orlan space suits, checked their systems and performed a fit check at suit pressure. (6/19)

Russian Dnepr Rocket Lofts Record Haul of 37 Satellites (Source: NasaSpaceFlight.com)
A Russian Dnepr rocket launched a record-breaking thirty-seven satellites on Friday morning local time, deploying a cluster of spacecraft for scientific research and commercial operation. The mission departed on schedule from Dombarovsky in Southern Russia. With thirty-seven satellites aboard the Dnepr, Friday’s launch saw the record for most spacecraft launched by a single rocket broken for the fourth time in less than a year. The previous record was set at 34 by January’s Antares launch with Orbital Sciences’ first CRS mission to the International Space Station. (6/19)

What Does Google Gain With Skybox Purchase? (Source: Aviation Week)
In yet another data-point in the trend of technology companies buying into the aerospace sector, Internet giant Google plans to acquire small-satellite start-up Skybox. Google’s $500 million investment in the Silicon Valley business appears to offer the promise of scanning the globe on a daily basis, enhanced big-data analytics and the potential to expand the reach of the Internet.

With a view from space, Google could sell or provide data to all kinds of customers—those watching the make of cars in Wal-Mart parking lots, or monitoring railroads, pipelines and crop infestations. And it adds to Google’s recent buying spree of high-altitude platforms for Internet connectivity and Earth observation. The addition of Skybox, which has patented a change-detection algorithm, may put Google in position to compete with other information services providers in Europe and the Middle East.

Earlier this year Google purchased Titan Aerospace, a manufacturer of high-altitude unmanned aerial surveillance platforms, saying the purchase was part of a long-term program including satellites and unmanned aircraft in support of both remote-sensing and web connectivity applications. Google is also backing WorldVu Satellites, which is seeking to launch a low-Earth-orbit constellation of hundreds of commsats to provide global broadband connectivity. In addition, Google has a minority stake in O3b networks, which has launched the first four of 12 satellites to provide Internet trunking from medium Earth orbit. (6/16)

Success! Cassini Flies by Titan, Collects Intel on Mysterious Lakes (Source: LA Times)
NASA's Cassini probe flew past Titan early Wednesday morning, successfully completing a complex maneuver that will help scientists better understand one of the solar system's most intriguing moons. Beginning around midnight, a team of scientists and engineers guided the spacecraft into an orbit that allowed them to bounce a radio signal off the surface of Titan toward Earth, where it was received by a land-based telescope array 1 billion miles away.

"We are essentially using Titan as a mirror," said Essam Marouf of San Jose State University, who's a member of the Cassini radio science team. "And the nature of the echo can tell us about the nature of Titan's surface, whether it is liquid or solid, and the physical properties of the material." (6/19)

Worth it or Wasted: Florida's Space Tourism Campaign (Source: FOX 13 Tampa)
You don't have to be an astronaut any longer to experience space travel. Space tourism is a growing business and your tax dollars are being used for marketing. $1.5 million was allocated in the new budget to market space travel and remind people that the past, present and future is right here in our state. Some of the money is being spent advertising for the website.

Ads are running in cities like Chicago and New York as well as airports scattered throughout the country. The primary purpose is to attract tourists to the Kennedy Space Center, but also to benefit commercial companies promoting zero gravity and suborbital flights. Click here. (6/19)

ULA Chief Accuses SpaceX of Trying to ‘Cut Corners’ (Source: Washington Post)
After weeks of taunts by Elon Musk’s spunky space start-up, the nation’s most established rocket launch company is finally pushing back. In a meeting with reporters Wednesday, ULA's Michael Gass met critics’ questions about its reliance on Russian-made engines head on, saying it would begin to develop its own engine in conjunction with several other firms. And he targeted Musk’s SpaceX, saying it was trying to “cut corners” and taking a “dangerous approach” to entering the national security launch business. (6/18)

Space-Program Funding Fight in Congress Could Impact Sierra Nevada (Source: Denver Post)
A perennial debate on Capitol Hill over space priorities is flaring up, this time threatening to delay the commercial crew program just as NASA prepares to select at least one U.S. company to taxi astronauts to the space station. Sen. Richard Shelby, R-AL, stirred the pot this month by embedding language in the U.S. Senate Commerce, Justice and Science appropriations bill for fiscal year 2015 that — if it passes the Senate — could add cumbersome steps for the NASA contract winners.

Sierra Nevada, SpaceX, and Boeing are the remaining businesses vying for a chance to be the next U.S. shuttle service, a contract expected to be awarded in August. This late-in-the-game maneuver could add delays and potentially higher costs for the taxpayers, said Michael Lopez-Alegria, president of Commercial Spaceflight Federation. If implemented, this provision would require the companies to resubmit pricing estimates using the cost-plus accounting model vs. the fixed-cost model currently used.

The policy's impact would depend on when NASA makes the contract awards — before or after Oct. 1, the start of the government's new fiscal year. "If it is before Oct. 1, whatever contracts were awarded would have to be renegotiated," delaying it months, Lopez-Alegria said. "But the worst case would be if NASA did not award this contract before Oct. 1, they would have to rebid. I think it would be on the order of a year or so." (6/18)

National Geographic Announces New Space Focus (Source: National Geographic)
National Geographic has launched a new Web portal, NatGeoSpace.com, dedicated to supporting and discussing ongoing efforts around space exploration. NatGeoSpace.com will include space-related news stories, features, photo galleries, videos and infographics. The online portal will be complemented by additional events and launches in the coming months, starting with the July cover story on astrobiology in National Geographic magazine, which is available on the portal now. Click here. (6/18)

Astronauts Will Mine Moon Water at Night (Source: Discovery)
Make a note: if you ever find yourself exploring the moon one day and you want to try some lunar skinny-dipping, you’ll have to do it at night. All right, so there’s no water-filled lakes on the moon (and you’d be strongly advised to keep your suit on).

But there is surface water, both in the form of ice inside polar craters and as scattered molecules within lunar soil and rocks. Except when the sun hits them — that is, ultraviolet radiation in the sun’s light — water molecules on the moon’s surface are set free and potentially even broken apart, as described in recent findings by researchers from Georgia Tech. Click here. (6/19)

Roscosmos Former Head Popovkin Dies (Source: Itar-Tass)
Former head of the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos) Vladimir Popovkin has died. "Vladimir Alexandrovich Popovkin has died at the age of 58 after a disease," the Roscosmos spokeswoman, Irina Zubareva told ITAR-TASS on Wednesday. (6/18)

Mountaintop in Chile to be Blasted Off for Extremely Large Telescope (Source: Guardian)
Shortly after lunch on Thursday afternoon the silence of the Atacama desert in Chile will be rudely broken by the dull crack of dynamite sending a rush of mountain rock skywards. The explosion marks the start of a months-long project to lop the top off the 3,000m-high Cerro Armazones. Once the dust has settled and the rubble has been cleared, the mountain will be smaller, flatter, and ready to host the largest optical and infra-red telescope in the world. (6/18)

China Looks to Recover Booster Stages (Source: Parabolic Arc)
China Space News published a short article on efforts by engineers to recover rocket boosters for later reuse. Based on a translated version of the article, they are pursuing an approach quite different from SpaceX’s propulsive landing system. An engineer is quoted as saying the recovery approach involves attaching paraglider-type “wings” to the booster that would allow it to glide to a soft landing. This technology has reached the “experimental verification stage.” Future steps include powered flight tests. The article indicates that the development process is estimated to take about four years. (6/18)

NASA Announces Grants for Space Station Research (Source: NASA)
NASA has awarded $500,000 and payload flight opportunities for research and technology development onboard the International Space Station to academic institutions across the U.S. The awards are through NASA's Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR). The academic research to be conducted by space station astronauts is in areas important to the agency's missions. These include testing leak detection techniques using ultrasonic sensors arrays, and improving spacewalking suits by incorporating self-healing polymers that are tested against micrometeor impacts. (6/18)

Senate Boosts NASA Budget, But at What Cost? (Source: Slate)
What I want to point out—again—is how the Space Launch System is gumming up the works. SLS is supposed to be a heavy-lift rocket designed by NASA to replace the shuttles. I say “supposed to be” because I have been saying for quite some time that it is very likely to get bloated, over budget, and behind schedule. That’s a common circumstance for really big NASA projects. NASA’s bureaucracy gets in the way, and as the dollar signs increase, Congress-critters start getting their own states and districts involved, muddying the situation further. (6/18)

NASA Is Building a Tiny Mothership to Explore Distant Lunar Oceans (Source: The Atlantic)
NASA scientists tasked with extending humanity’s reach into space have two very different jobs. The first is posed by space and solved by engineering: It’s the actual work of sending tools, instruments, and (sometimes) humans millions of miles, to another place in space, intact. But the second one can be both much more mundane and much more infuriating: It’s the ongoing work of securing funding for space exploration from a capricious and dysfunctional Congress.

A new experimental spacecraft design anticipates the second problem with the techniques of the first. Draper Laboratories received funding this week from NIAC, NASA’s innovative concepts fund, for a two-phase space probe—technology that could both survey a planet and send instruments to its surface. Where might such a probe go first? Its designers, led by Streetman, think it might be a good way to explore the only orb in the solar system believed to have liquid water: Jupiter’s moon, Europa.

In its first stage, a small satellite about as large as a half-gallon of milk would orbit the moon. Using two highly accurate accelerometers, it could sense small changes in Europa’s gravitational field, eventually mapping the gravity of the entire surface. These detailed gravity maps could then suggest the location of watery oceans below the planet’s surface—or the openings to these oceans. Click here. (6/19)

NASA Wants to Send a Quadcopter to Saturn’s Giant Moon Titan (Source: Geek.com)
Saturn’s largest moon Titan fascinates the scientists at NASA due to its dense atmosphere and the presence of stable bodies of surface liquid alongside ice and rock. The nitrogen rich atmosphere experiences wind and rain, meaning the mix has produced a moon with similar features to Earth’s own surface, complete with rivers, lakes and seas (of liquid methane or ethane), mountains, and dunes.

In recent years there have been major advances in autonomous navigation coupled with the miniaturization of technology including sensors and computer systems. What that means is the idea of sending a helicopter to Titan has morphed into sending something that quite a few of us are buying for fun right now: a quadcopter or similar tiny flying drone.

NASA is researching a mission that would see the equivalent of a quadcopter supported by a balloon sent to Titan. The balloon would drop into Titan’s atmosphere without needing to land and would act as a base station. The quadcopter would launch from the balloon to visit locations, take pictures, and collect samples. It would then return to the balloon to upload data and recharge its batteries. (6/19)

Orion No Backup for Commercial Crew, Says Bolden (Source: Space News)
NASA will not tap its Orion deep-space capsule as a backup system to fly astronauts to and from the international space station, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden said June 18. “It’s a bad, bad day when you have to send Orion to the international space station because it means either we’ve lost each of the (commercial) vehicles that was designed to do that through some accident, or they failed or something. So, we don’t want to have to rely on Orion to do that,” Bolden said. (6/18)

Universe's Expansion Calculated With Unprecedented Precision (Source: Space.com)
Scientists studying more than 140,000 extremely bright galaxies have calculated the expansion of the universe with unprecedented accuracy. The distant galaxies, known as quasars, serve as a "standard ruler" to map density variations in the universe. Physicists were able to extend their calculations almost twice as far back in time as has been previously accomplished.

Using the Baryon Oscillation Spectroscopic Survey (BOSS), two teams of physicists have improved on scientists' understanding of the mysterious dark energy that drives the accelerating universe. By nearly tripling the number of quasars previously studied, as well as implementing a new technique, the scientists were able to calculate the expansion rate to 42 miles (68 kilometers) per second per 1 million light-years with greater precision, while looking farther back in time. (6/18)

Nelson Wants To Revisit Call for Stricter Commercial Crew Oversight (Source: Space News)
Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) took to the Senate floor June 18 and tapped the brakes on a powerful appropriator’s plan to subject NASA’s commercial crew program to strict federal accounting standards the agency waived when it solicited bids for crew transportation in November. Nelson, the chairman of the Senate Commerce science and space subcommittee, said the commercial crew program needs “the right mix of oversight and innovation” to start ferrying crews by NASA’s target date of late 2017.

Nelson was alluding to a directive Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL), the top Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee, personally fought to include in a report appended to a spending bill now awaiting debate on the Senate floor, and which would if signed into law require NASA to either comply with FAR section 15.403-4, or risk a legal mandate to do so. Nelson said he wanted to work with Shelby “as the bill goes to the conference committee to make sure that we have the right mix of oversight and innovation in how NASA contracts for this competition.” (6/18)

NASA Astronauts David Leestma and Andrew Thomas Retire (Source: NASA)
NASA has bid farewell to two veteran astronauts who have retired after a combined 66 years of federal service. David Leestma has retired after more than 44 years of government service. Leestma is a veteran of three spaceflights. Andrew Thomas also has retired from NASA after more than 22 years of service to the agency. Thomas was selected to join NASA's astronaut corps in 1992 and is a veteran of four spaceflight missions. (6/18)

Even SpaceX's Elon Musk Fears 'Terminator' Robot Apocalypse (Source: NBC)
SpaceX's billionaire founder, Elon Musk, has a plan for putting humanity on Mars, and he's helping usher in a new age of SolarCity electricity and Tesla electric cars — but even he is worried about the potential for a "Terminator"-style robot apocalypse. The subject came up in the context of Musk's recent investment in an artificial-intelligence company called Vicarious, and his past investment in another A.I. company called DeepMind (which was acquired by Google).

Musk's concerns mesh with the worries raised a decade ago by Sun Microsystems' Bill Joy, as well as the projection by Google's in-house futurist, Ray Kurzweil, who says computers will match human intelligence by 2029. Musk had no prescription for managing the rise of A.I., other than to say "you have to be careful." (6/18)

Musk Announces Plans to Build Massive Solar Power Plants (Source: Kurzweil)
Elon Musk, chairman of SolarCity, America’s largest solar power provider, announced Tuesday with other SolarCity executives that the company plans to acquire Silevo, a solar panel technology and manufacturing company whose modules have “demonstrated a unique combination of high energy output and low cost. “Our intent is to combine what we believe is fundamentally the best photovoltaic technology with massive economies of scale to achieve a breakthrough in the cost of solar power.”

Musk said the company is in discussions with the state of New York to build the initial manufacturing plant, continuing a relationship developed by the Silevo team. “At a targeted capacity greater than 1 GW within the next two years, it will be one of the single largest solar panel production plants in the world. This will be followed in subsequent years by one or more significantly larger plants at an order of magnitude greater annual production capacity. (6/18)

Young Students Make Satellite to Launch Into Space (Source: WJLA)
Here at mission operations center, it's T-minus and counting. Inside this computer class, students are making space history. They are part of a "mission" - a three-year project that Saint Thomas More Cathedral School is calling "Mission Possible" - to design, build, test and ultimately launch a cube-sat, which is a 4-by-4-inch, cube-shaped satellite used for space research.

Computer teacher Melissa Pore is heading up the mission. "We're actually using a kit called the Cube-Sat kit," she explained, "and we're looking at common items we can use." Those items include things such as measuring tape, which they used to make the antenna. "We've been seeing how much time it takes for it to go out." Every student has a job, Pore said. (6/18)

ULA Fights To Change Perceptions, Accelerates RD-180 Deliveries (Source: Space Policy Online)
ULA President Michael Gass announced the company is initiating an advertising campaign to change perceptions and correct misinformation as its Air Force customer fights a lawsuit filed by competitor SpaceX and controversy swirls over the future of Russian RD-180 rocket engines. Among the points he stressed were that SpaceX "was not a viable competitor" when the Air Force issued its contested EELV block buy RFP in March 2012.  

Another key message was that ULA has more than 100 years of combined experience launching rockets -- roughly 50 years each for the Atlas and Delta, which date back to the earliest days of the Space Age -- versus newcomer SpaceX. The national security satellites launched by ULA "save lives," Gass emphasized, and experience counts to be sure they get into orbit when needed.

Gass also made clear today that despite Russian threats to prohibit RD-180s from use for U.S. national security launches, it is "business as usual" with the engines' manufacturer Energomash. However, ULA decided to accelerate delivery of the RD-180 engines it already has under contract. Five engines were due to be delivered in November, but now two will arrive in August and the remaining three in November. The plan had been for six engines per year after that, but instead Energomash will deliver eight per year. (6/18)

XCOR: Bootstrapping To The Stars (Source: Forbes)
The private space industry is a billionaire boys club. Elon Musk, Richard Branson, Paul Allen and Jeff Bezos have all founded companies that have spent tens of millions of their own and investors’ money to get into orbit. Then there’s XCOR. Its founders aren’t rich, and they’re so thrifty they often buy machinery on surplus websites for pennies on the dollar. Its every milestone has been bootstrapped with side contracts and presales of tickets to space tourists. Yet if all goes to plan, the underdog XCOR may be the first company to take a paying customer into space in a privately built spaceship. Click here. (6/18)

We Could Find Life on Another Planet. Do We Have the Will? (Source: National Geographic)
Many of us think of alien life the way it's depicted in science fiction—creatures that look quite a bit like humans in makeup and that all speak English with a non-American accent. These made-up aliens hail from distant star systems. But there's a place right here in our own solar system that may be teeming with life. It's Europa, a moon of Jupiter, one of the four that you can see with an inexpensive telescope, just as Galileo Galilei did.

Europa's geysers present us Earthlings with a remarkable, tantalizing opportunity. We could design and built a robotic spacecraft that would fly through these plumes and sniff around. It would cost each U.S. taxpayer about the equivalent of one reasonably priced burrito, albeit without extra guacamole. All we have to do is decide to go. The proposed name for the mission is the Europa Clipper. Some work has been done on the design, but funding for the project has been unsteady.

Within NASA's budget is a line for planetary science. It's the part of NASA that does the most amazing things. Other space agencies put spacecraft in orbit around the Earth; a few even go to Mars. But no other space agency on Earth can land anything on Mars, let alone lower a small car there from a rocket-powered crane. And no other agency can mount a mission like the Europa Clipper. (6/18)

Russia to Get First Private Satellite Constellation (Source: AFP)
A Russian startup said Wednesday it will launch several satellites in the coming weeks, the country's first private satellite constellation, to offer maritime monitoring services. Dauria Aerospace will on Thursday launch two satellites, to be followed by another one in July, and begin offering navigation help for ocean ships and river vessels in cooperation with the Russian transportation ministry.

The third satellite was completely financed, designed and assembled by private companies, and could provide a much-needed boost for the country's beleaguered state-controlled space industry. The Russian government is scrambling to overhaul its space programme after setbacks including the loss of several satellites and an unmanned supply ship to the International Space Station, but legislation has so far discouraged private initiatives in the sector. (6/18)

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