September 18, 2014

Musk Seeking Mars Mission After NASA Picks SpaceX-Boeing (Source: Bloomberg)
With one small step yesterday, NASA took a giant leap toward realizing a manned mission to Mars. The agency awarded Boeing and SpaceX as much as $6.8 billion to ferry astronauts to the International Space Station, resuming U.S. manned space flight. Since NASA retired the space shuttle fleet in 2011, U.S. astronauts have relied on Russian rockets to reach orbit.

While NASA is looking to private industry for human missions near Earth with reusable craft, it can now focus on far-off trips such as Mars. The space agency is preparing the first rockets to take humans beyond low-Earth orbit in four decades. It's a goal shared by Elon Musk. He said welcomes NASA's decision and "the mission it advances with gratitude and seriousness of purpose. It is a vital step in a journey that will ultimately take us to the stars and make humanity a multi-planet species." (9/17)

Jeff Bezos Declares War on Elon Musk (Source: Bloomberg)
Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk are officially at war. And how. On Wednesday, Bezos presided over a press conference in which his rocket company Blue Origin formed a partnership with United Launch Alliance, or ULA. The deal between the companies will see Blue Origin develop an engine for use with ULA’s rockets, which currently carry U.S. government and military satellites to space. The deal helps ULA save face, because it gives the company access to an American-made engine instead of the Russian-made RD-180, on which it currently relies.

The tie-up also unites two of the staunchest rivals to SpaceX, Elon Musk’s rocket company. Blue Origin, by contrast, has operated in near-total secrecy and dribbled out information only about its engine and rocket development. With Bezos’s fortune behind it, the company has been free to hone its technology without chasing commercial work.

Blue Origin has been working on an engine called BE-4 for three years, and it’s this engine that ULA plans to use with its rockets. During the press conference, ULA’s new chief executive, Tory Bruno, said the company hopes to launch the BE-4 in about four years. (9/17)

ULA To Invest in Blue Origin Engine as RD-180 Replacement for Atlas 5 (Source: Space News)
United Launch Alliance will pay Blue Origin an unspecified sum to complete development of a new engine that will replace the Russian-made RD-180 that powers the first stage of ULA’s Atlas 5 rocket. Blue Origin has been developing the BE-4 for three years, thus giving it a head start against other prospective RD-180 replacements, ULA Chief Executive Tory Bruno said.

Fueled by liquefied natural gas, the new engine will be relatively inexpensive and could be ready to start flying in four years, he said. Bruno said developing a new engine typically takes seven to 10 years and costs $1 billion. Two BE-4 engines generating a combined 1.1 million pounds of thrust at sea level would power the Atlas 5 first stage, Bruno said. The current Atlas 5 first stage is powered by a single RD-180 generating close to 1 million pounds of thrust.

Bezos said the BE-4, which will generate about 550,000 pounds of thrust, is based on the BE-3 that powers Blue Origin’s New Shepard, an experimental suborbital rocket that takes off and lands vertically. In addition to the Atlas 5, the new engine also would be used for a future reusable orbital launcher Blue Origin plans to develop, he said. (9/17)

Blue Origin Engine Beat Aerojet Rocketdyne Engine in ULA Competition (Source: Space News)
In June, ULA announced that it had signed contracts with multiple unspecified companies to study alternatives to the RD-180. The company declined to identify any of the contract recipients but said a first launch of the new engine was targeted for 2019. ULA's Tony Bruno said the BE-4 came out as the winner in that competition.

Among the other study contract recipients was Aerojet Rocketdyne, which has been touting a liquid-oxygen/kerosene-fueled engine dubbed the AR-1 as an RD-180 replacement. Officials with Aerojet Rocketdyne, the largest and most experienced U.S. manufacturer of liquid-fueled rocket engines, said the AR-1 will be capable of generating 500,000 pounds of thrust and could be ready to fly by 2019 for an investment of less than $1 billion.

Congress, meanwhile, has proposed spending as much as $220 million next year to begin work on a new engine. Editor's Note: Private-sector options in development now, one wonders why the Federal Government must invest taxpayer dollars for a new engine. (9/17)

Commentary on ULA/Blue Origin Engine Link-Up (Source: SPACErePORT)
Traditional rocket engine manufacturers are a dwindling breed after the series of consolidations that brought together Rocketdyne, Pratt & Whitney, and Aerojet into a company now called "Aerojet Rocketdyne." These longtime government contractors developed engines at higher costs than newcomers like SpaceX.

By building its own rocket engines -- nine on each Falcon first-stage plus more on upper stage and Dragon vehicles -- SpaceX claims now to be the world's largest engine producer. ULA is a major customer for Aerojet Rocketdyne, but its pursuit of partnerships with XCOR and now Blue Origin gives the company some NewSpace cred while benefitting from some of the cost-cutting approaches and innovations they bring to the table. (9/17)

Surprise! Monster Black Hole Found in Dwarf Galaxy (Source:
Astronomers have just discovered the smallest known galaxy that harbors a huge, supermassive black hole at its core. The relatively nearby dwarf galaxy may house a supermassive black hole at its heart equal in mass to about 21 million suns. The discovery suggests that supermassive black holes may be far more common than previously thought. (9/17)

Wanted by NASA: Space Telescope Director with Spy Credentials (Source: Scientific American)
Conspiracy theorists may wonder, why does NASA’s next major telescope director need top secret clearance? The space agency recently posted a want ad for a person to lead its James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) program, and in addition to aerospace engineering credentials and management experience, the candidate must have the highest possible level of security credentials.

CIA analyst Allen Aftergood speculated that the requirement likely had to do with the interface between Webb’s technology and that used in intelligence and military Earth-observing satellites. “I think it probably reflects the role of surveillance technology and the need for coordination with U.S. intelligence agencies,” he says. (9/17)

Embry-Riddle's Aerospace Engineering No. 1 in Nation for 15th Year (Source: ERAU)
For the 15th consecutive year, the Best Colleges guidebook published by U.S. News & World Report ranks Embry-Riddle’s specialized undergraduate aerospace engineering program No. 1 in the nation and honors the university for continued excellence in undergraduate engineering. Additionally, the annual compilation has named Embry-Riddle the Best Southern University for veterans and active service members for the second year in a row.

Also in the South, Embry-Riddle has climbed to the No. 10 spot among the 122 ranked best regional universities, landing in the top 13 for 10 years now. In a new honor, the university has tied for No. 6 in the elite group of Best Southern Universities considered “up-and-comers” exhibiting the most promising changes in academics, faculty, student life, campus or facilities. (9/11)

FCC Greenlights Iridium Plan for Deorbiting 1st-Generation Constellation (Source: Space News)
Iridium Communications’ request that U.S. regulators loosen requirements for deorbiting the current Iridium satellite constellation will still permit the company to bring down all of its satellites within a few years of their retirement, company officials said. And for most of the satellites, the post-retirement deorbit plan remains what it was from the start: They will be lowered to an elliptical orbit low enough to force them into the atmosphere to burn up within months, not years. (9/11)

A $90 Ticket Into Space? (Source: UT San Diego)
A new San Diego startup is charging people $90 to enter a contest whose winners will be offered a free trip into space even though such commercial flights aren't available to the general public. Spaceship Earth Grants (SEG) began accepting applications on Monday with the hope that Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic or another company will develop a safe, reliable spaceship to carry passengers on sub-orbital flights.

SEG says it will award one spaceflight for every 50,000 applications, increasing the frequency if the pool gets large. The company is still working out key details of the contest, including precisely how winners will be chosen and how they will be trained for flights that must reach an altitude of about 62 miles to reach the edge of space.

Editor's Note: This is an interesting approach but it seems awfully similar to a raffle. Raffles for spaceflight have been shut down in recent years for legal reasons. By making this a judged contest SEG may successfully avoid the raffle trap. (9/17)

Commercial Crew Plan May Launch Space Tourism Industry in Florida (Source: Orlando Business Journal)
Taking the everyday person into space. We've heard billionaire and Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson talk about the possibility, but it always seemed too out of this world. Not so much anymore, folks. We are going to host a party on the moon ... maybe.

NASA's announcement naming Boeing Co. and SpaceX as the agencies to transport astronauts to the International Space Station brings us one step closer to commercialized space tourism and the creation of new tourism business opportunities, said Frank DiBello, CEO with Space Florida. (9/17)

Editorial: Keep Money, Momentum Behind Private Space Plan (Source: Orlando Sentinel)
America's manned space program, in suspended animation for three years, was stirring this week. That's promising for the program and the nation — particularly for Florida, the nation's spaceport. But Congress must make sure it doesn't postpone the program's reawakening — and America's declaration of independence from Russia in space.

On Tuesday NASA awarded $6.8 billion in contracts to Boeing and SpaceX for the two companies to finish developing their own space vehicles to carry U.S. astronauts to and from the International Space Station by 2017. Both companies plan to launch from Florida's Space Coast. NASA's decision to pick two contractors, instead of one, was opposed by some members of Congress, who contend it's a more expensive approach.

But having two contractors will maintain competition that should keep costs down over the longer term and drive innovation. It also should forestall the possibility that problems with one contractor's operation will shut down the manned space program again. The program will need sustained support to meet its target. The launch date could slip to 2018 or later if Congress maintains its maddening practice in recent years of starving the program's budget. (9/17)

Radiation Blast Delays NASA Spacecraft’s Arrival At Dwarf Planet Ceres (Source: Universe Today)
NASA’s Dawn spacecraft experienced technical problems in the past week that will force it to arrive at dwarf planet Ceres one month later than planned. Controllers discovered Dawn was in safe mode Sep. 11 after radiation disabled its ion engine, which uses electrical fields to “push” the spacecraft along. The radiation stopped all engine thrusting activities. The thrusting resumed Sep. 15 after controllers identified and fixed the problem, but then they found another anomaly troubling the spacecraft.

Dawn’s main antenna was also disabled, forcing the spacecraft to send signals to Earth (a 53-minute roundtrip by light speed) through a weaker secondary antenna and slowing communications. The cause of this problem hasn’t been figured out yet, but controllers suspect radiation affected the computer’s software. A computer reset has solved the issue, NASA added. The spacecraft is now functioning normally. (9/17)

Lawmaker Calls for Changes to How FAA is Funded (Source: The Hill)
House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Rep. Bill Shuster, R-PA, says the FAA needs stable funding to better serve the industry and traveling public. The $63 billion measure currently funding the agency will expire in September 2015. "The next FAA reauthorization should be transformational," Shuster said. "We've got to do something different. We need to lay the groundwork for the future of U.S. aviation."

Editor's Note: Seems like a good idea. The FAA is chronically underfunded, and its space office is especially so. The agency also invests far too little in R&D. And to complicate matters, Congress funds the FAA's space activities from a separate appropriations budget, in Science as opposed to Transportation, where the bulk of FAA's money comes from. (9/17)

How NASA Keeps Innovating (Source: Washington Post)
Rod Pyle, the author of Innovation the NASA Way, has led leadership trainings at NASA's Johnson Space Center for its top executives and has also trained leaders from Fortune 100 companies. Pyle spoke about NASA and fostering innovation with Tom Fox. Click here. (9/16)

NASA Hedges On Critical Suit Battery Resupply (Source: America Space)
NASA has confirmed that the Extravehicular Mobility Unit (EMU) Long Life Batteries (LLBs) will not be launching solely on SpX–4, as originally planned. Instead, according to NASA, two of the four LLBs have already been sent to Russia for launch aboard a Soyuz scheduled for late September, after SpX–4. Since August, ISS maintenance EVAs have been curtailed due to the current EMU battery issues, therefore making the resupply of new EMU batteries a top priority for NASA.

Given the possibility of a launch delay of either SpaceX or Soyuz, NASA’s decision to hedge and split the payload between the upcoming SpaceX cargo flight and a later Soyuz flight appears prudent. Over a month ago, a failure was discovered in one of the astronaut Extravehicular Mobility Unit (EMU) Long Life Batteries (LLBs) that concerned one of the battery’s parts. All electrical parts in the life-support system, that is in the portable life-support system (PLSS) and secondary oxygen pack (SOP), are burned-in.

Since all LLB fuses use the same burn-in procedure and test setup, the concern was that other long-life batteries could have the same problem. In early August, the crew began removing the LLB’s from the onboard EMU’s to be returned to the ground, and replacement LLB’s were scheduled for launch on SpaceX–4 in September 2014. (9/17)

Visualizing 4-Dimensional Asteroids (Source: Scientific American)
One of the largest treasure troves of astronomical data comes from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS), an ongoing scan of the firmament that began 15 years ago. Its catalog covers 35 percent of the sky and contains multicolor observations of hundreds of millions of distinct galaxies, stars and quasars. If a person were to attempt to individually inspect each of these objects at a rate of one per second through the workday, it would be a full-time job lasting over 60 years!

Fortunately, such individual inspection is not how astronomers work. Instead, we use various specialized algorithms to automatically sift through and categorize this vast data set and dream up novel visualization schemes to make clear in a glance the relationships between thousands or millions of individual objects. Click here. (9/16)

Thanks To Putin, Space Travel Is About American Prestige Again (Source: Business Insider)
The US is dispensing with the diplomatic niceties of the Soyuz flights. Manned space travel is a matter of national prestige again. And if Russian president Vladimir Putin really is girding himself for a long-term struggle over the future of the European periphery — one that brings him into constant indirect conflict with the US and the NATO states — then at least US policymakers will have one less reason to want to mollify him when a manned Dragon 2 capsule flies for the first time this December.

Editor's Note: Recently, Russia seems anxious to clarify that its rocket engines will continue to be available to U.S. buyers. Too late. The Ukraine crisis is pushing U.S. government and industry players toward eliminating their reliance on Russia's excellent and cheap engines. This is as good for U.S. economic development as it is bad for Russia's ailing spaceflight sector. (9/17)

Chandra Finds Planet That Makes Star Act Deceptively Old (Source: Space Daily)
"It is one of the most massive hot Jupiters known and one of the closest to its host star, and these characteristics lead to unexpected behavior. This planet is causing its host star to act old before its time." Pillitteri's team determined WASP-18 is between 500 million and 2 billion years old, based on theoretical models and other data. While this may sound old, it is considered young by astronomical standards.

By comparison, our sun is about 5 billion years old and thought to be about halfway through its lifetime. Younger stars tend to be more active, exhibiting stronger magnetic fields, larger flares, and more intense X-ray emission than their older counterparts. Magnetic activity, flaring, and X-ray emission are linked to the star's rotation, which generally declines with age. However, when astronomers took a long look with Chandra at WASP-18 they didn't detect any X-rays. (9/17)

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