August 24, 2016

Why the Universe Needs More Black and Latino Astronomers (Source: Smithsonian)
These four names—all recent black and Latino victims of police violence—stare out at a college classroom full of budding astronomers. Written above them on the chalkboard is the now-familiar rallying call “Black Lives Matter.” It's a Friday morning in July, and John Johnson, a black astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, has written these words as part of the day’s agenda. Later this afternoon, they’ll serve as a launching point for a discussion about these specific killings and the implications of systemic racism.

It's something you might expect in an African American history class, or maybe a class on social justice. But this is a summer astronomy internship. Most astronomy internships are about parsing through tedious telescope data, battling with an arcane computer language in a basement, or making a poster to present at a conference: skills meant to help you get into grad school. The point of this class, which is made up entirely of African-American and Latino college students, is something very different.

The Banneker Institute is an ambitious new program meant to increase the number of black and Latino astronomers in the field—and to ensure that they are equipped to grapple with the social forces they will face in their careers. Undergraduates from all over the country apply to the Institute, which pays for them to live and work at Harvard for the summer. During the program, they alternate between specific research projects, general analysis techniques, and social justice activism—hence the names on the chalkboard. (8/23)

NASA’s Hopes for Mars and the Future are at Stake in the 2016 Election (Source: The Verge)
Election years are a tense time for NASA. A new president can completely alter NASA’s long-term goals by resetting the space agency’s agenda. Whoever is elected will be faced with a choice: change the focus or scope of NASA’s goals, or keep things going on the same track. And given the uncertainty that has plagued NASA for a while, it’s very possible that major changes are on the horizon.

NASA’s human spaceflight program stands at a significant crossroads. For the past five years, the space agency has been moving from the now-dead Space Shuttle program to the "Journey to Mars" — NASA’s goal of sending humans to the Red Planet by the 2030s. But this transition has lacked direction. NASA has yet to lay out a timeline of the missions it plans to do to get humans to Mars, nor has it outlined the architecture needed to keep people alive on the planet — such as habitats, landers, life support systems, and more.

This lack of detail has been criticized by Congress, which has also questioned if NASA even has enough funding for a Mars trip. And on top of that, the vehicles that NASA is building to take people to Mars will likely run over budget and miss important deadlines, according to government reports. (8/23)

Pressure Building to Pass Budget and Avoid Continuing Resolution (Source: Dayton Daily News)
Less than six weeks prior to the start of a new fiscal year, Congress will have to reach a final budget deal next month or face the prospect of a continuing resolution to avoid a partial federal government shutdown Oct. 1. But there are not enough votes in Congress to support a continuing resolution unless it includes additional dollars above the prior fiscal year’s spending levels for the military, according to U.S. Rep. Mike Turner, R-Dayton. (8/22)

NASA Makes a Strong Statement in IT Contract Dispute (Source: FCW)
In an unusual move, NASA has let the authority to operate for a contractor-run IT network expire. The move appears to be the agency's way of airing its longtime dissatisfaction with the way Hewlett Packard Enterprise is managing the network or perhaps a bold move in a high-stakes game of chicken. In 2010, NASA awarded HPE a 10-year contract worth as much as $2.5 billion. The four-year deal was followed by two three-year options.

Despite NASA's decision to pick up the first option, the two entities have had a rocky relationship since the contract was awarded, including a scathing 2014 inspector general report that cited significant problems and found fault with both sides. Former NASA CIO Linda Cureton told FCW that the act of letting an authority to operate (ATO) expire is not unprecedented, but it indicates that "the kind of progress the agency wants hasn't been made." (8/23)

Just How Dangerous Is It to Travel at 20% the Speed of Light? (Source: Ars Technica)
Breakthrough Starshot is one of the more exciting scientific ideas that has popped up in the past decade, with its promise to deliver hardware to the nearest star in time for many people currently alive to see it. While the idea would work on paper as an extrapolation of existing technology, there are a lot of details that need to be thoroughly checked out, because it's possible that one of them could present a show-stopper.

There's a bit of good news there: Breakthrough Starshot is apparently funding the needed research to give its concept a thorough vetting. A recent posting to the arXiv describes a careful look at the odds of a spacecraft surviving an extended journey at the speeds planned for the trip. Overall, things look good, but a bit of shielding will be needed, and there's the potential for a catastrophic collision with a speck of dust.

The work, done by a team of four astronomers, focuses on one of the most basic issues: spacecraft survival. The goal of Breakthrough Starshot is to accelerate its craft to about 20 percent the speed of light. At that speed, even individual atoms can damage the vehicle, and a collision with a bit of dust could be catastrophic. So the team set out to quantify just how risky these collisions could be. (8/23)

China Unveils Mars Probe, Rover for Ambitious 2020 Mission (Source: Xinhua)
China on Tuesday released images of a Mars probe and rover which the country plans to send to the Red Planet within five years. China plans to send a spacecraft to orbit Mars, make a landing, and deploy a rover in July or August 2020, said Zhang Rongqiao, chief architect of the Mars mission at a press conference in Beijing. "The challenges we face are unprecedented."

According to Ye Peijian, one of China's leading aerospace experts and a consultant to the program, the 2020 mission will be launched on a Long March-5 carrier rocket from the Wenchang space launch center in south China's Hainan province. The lander will separate from the orbiter at the end of a journey of around seven months and touch down in a low latitude area in the northern hemisphere of Mars where the rover will explore the surface. (8/24)

Aging Iridium Network Waits for Key Satellite Replacements (Source: Wall Street Journal)
Iridium is trying to meet a commitment to replace its entire fleet and get it into commercial operation by the end of 2017. Roughly 80% of Iridium Communications Inc.’s 1990s-vintage satellites are operating without in-orbit spares, further raising the stakes for launching replacements on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket slated for the fall. Two of its remaining 66 core satellites are out of operation after nearly two decades, and a single backup satellite is available for only a small portion of the reduced constellation. (8/23)

Aliens in Orbit? Probably Not. $100K on a Kickstarter to Check? Oh, Sure. (Source: WIRED)
Yesterday, astronomer Tabetha Boyajian revealed the first data from her telescope survey of a very special star. For almost four months, she’s been using the Las Cumbres Observatory Global Telescope Network to watch for the unpredictable dimmings of KIC 8462852, a star 1,480 light years away. Its strange flickering pattern could have many explanations—stars, asteroids, or comets passing between there and Earth. But the one that turned this star into a star—making Boyajian’s new survey possible—is aliens.

This new research wouldn’t exist if not for the support of 1,762 people who signed on to Boyajian’s Kickstarter campaign—to whom she emailed a sneak data-peek yesterday. And there’s an entire subreddit devoted to discussion of what people have come to call “Tabby’s Star.” “Together we’ll get to the bottom of the greatest mystery we’ve perhaps ever faced as a scientific community,” posted a user named Pringlecks, after another member shared Boyajian’s email to the forum. Click here. (8/23)

Weirdest, Funniest and Most Forced Space Acronyms (Source: Seeker)
When we hear an acronym using a common word (JUICE), playing on a name from Tolkien fantasy (SAURON) or even invoking a common name (MONICA), it makes the name stick better in our heads. It's a lot easier to remember the acronym for HiRISE than to look up what it means! Now enterprising astronomer Glen Petipas at Harvard University has gathered a list of space-related acronyms, past and present, on his website. Click here. (8/23)

Could She Be Hillary's Secretary of Space (Source: OZY)
When Andy Weir, author of The Martian, was seeking inspiration for his sequel, he found it at a tiny startup that had proven it could launch spacecraft into the cosmos using microwaves to “beam” power to them from Earth. The radical system had been devised at Escape Dynamics, the company that successfully tested the technology last year and was cofounded by 38-year-old French-American entrepreneur Laetitia Garriott de Cayeux.

The same month the company announced its startling results, NASA added “beamed rocketry” to its road map for future technology development. “We’re one giant step forward but only in the early innings of what we’ll see in terms of beamed energy propulsion,” Garriott de Cayeux says from her office. “Everything is possible,” Weir tells OZY. He consulted with Garriott de Cayeux for his new novel set on the moon. But space exploration has leapt off the pages of sci-fi fiction and is poised to become big business.

Turns out Garriott de Cayeux has a not-so-secret plan — and the ear of some powerful people. Her new mission, should Hillary Clinton choose to accept it, is to work on space policy as part of Clinton’s domestic-policy working group focused on science, along with the Europe- and Russia-policy working group. “It’s pretty enthralling,” she says, sitting near photographs of her family posed with Clinton, who recently declared she believed in science! at the Democratic National Convention. (8/23)

NASA's Williams To Set U.S. Space Record (Source: Aviation Week)
Scott Kelly is widely known as the Ironman of U.S. astronauts after his recent yearlong mission aboard the International Space Station, during which he set a NASA record for most cumulative days in space with 520 over four flights. But as of Wednesday, that career record will belong not to Kelly but Jeff Williams, an unassuming NASA veteran who doesn't mind if his six-month tour lacks the promotion and buzz of Kelly's "#YearInSpace."

The commander of the station’s six-person Expedition 48 crew marks his 521st day in space Wednesday, a total expected to reach 534 days by the time he returns to Earth on Sept. 6 to conclude his fourth spaceflight. Don’t expect the retired Army colonel — a 58-year-old grandfather who the oldest NASA astronaut to live on the orbiting laboratory complex — to boast about the achievement. (8/23)

A Satellite Exec is Taking Over Project Loon, the Google's Internet Balloon Program (Source: Recode)
There’s another executive mix in the Alphabet soup. Tom Moore, a senior VP at the broadband satellite company ViaSat, is taking the reins at Project Loon, the ambitious effort to string high-altitude balloons into a global internet network. Mike Cassidy, a serial entrepreneur who has helmed the project for the past two years, is stepping down from the position but remaining at X, the company under Google parent Alphabet that houses the project. (8/23)

Interstellar Probes Will Be Eroded on the Way to Alpha Centauri (Source: New Scientist)
When you’re travelling at one-fifth the speed of light, even a small collision can hurt. Now we know exactly how much. A team working on a project to send tiny spacecraft to the stars have calculated the damage that hitting just a speck of dust could do. Normally, a speck of dust would bounce harmlessly off a spacecraft, although slightly larger micrometeoroids are known to cause trouble for telescopes and the International Space Station.

But Breakthrough Starshot wants to send their probes traveling at a fifth of the speed of light, meaning the kinetic energy released by even a tiny ping will be massive. The probes, dubbed wafersats as they are essentially just small circuit boards, will be mostly made from graphite and quartz, so the team studied the effects of impacts on these materials. They found that interstellar dust will hit the wafersats as a collection of heavy atoms, rather than a single particle, meaning they will bombard the surface, heating it up and forming craters. (8/24)

We'll be Sending Tourists Into Orbit by 2021, Claims Boss of Manchester-Based Firm (Source: This Is Money)
A British space travel company will send a manned rocket into space within the next five years, according to its boss. Rocket man Steve Bennett, who set up and runs Manchester-based Starchaser Industries, said the company is 'pretty close' to putting tourists in space.

'Space tourism is going to be the big business of the 21st century,' he said. 'It's going to be the dotcom boom all over again.' The flight will only take an hour and will see the rocket reach around 330,000ft – ten times the average cruising altitude for an aeroplane flight. (8/23)

Lawsuit Between Virgin Galactic, Firefly Grinds On (Source: Law 360)
A California judge criticized Virgin Galactic and a former Virgin rocket scientist for creating “quite a confusing situation” in their ongoing arbitration battle over claims the scientist stole Virgin trade secrets, calling the scientist’s motion to halt arbitration “unusual” and Virgin’s response procedurally improper. Virgin alleges that former Virgin Galactic scientist Thomas Markusic stole company secrets when he left to form Firefly Space Systems. (8/23)

Texas Spaceport Group Approves $2.4 Million for Road, Utility Investment (Source: Midland Reporter-Telegram)
The Midland Spaceport Development Corp. board on Tuesday approved about $2.4 million to fund construction at Spaceport Business Park at Midland International Air & Space Port. The funds will cover Phase I of efforts to build roadways and infrastructure at the park.

Each contract received unanimous votes for approval. In total, MSDC approved $2,425,250.25 for the projects, $242,066.89, or 9 percent, below the projected cost offered at the organization’s June meeting. Midland Development Corp. in June agreed to pay MSDC $3 million to move forward with Phase I of the project, with $2 million reimbursable to MDC and $1 million not, according to a previous Reporter-Telegram report. MSDC will repay MDC with the $2 million it will receive this year from the state's Spaceport Trust Fund. (8/23)

Georgia Spaceport Project Hinges on Liability Shield Law (Source: Atlanta Business Chronicle)
While federal courts have jurisdiction over lawsuits arising from accidents during commercial space launches, federal law requires judges to consider applicable state laws, two FAA officials said Tuesday.

"In states like Florida and Texas that have a law, that is the statute a federal judge is going to look at,” Dan Murray, a manager with the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation, told members of a Georgia House subcommittee exploring a planned commercial spaceport in southeastern Georgia. (8/23)

Ten Years Later, IAU Pluto Vote Remains Controversial (Source: SpaceFlight Insider)
In the decade that has passed since the International Astronomical Union's (IAU) controversial vote that demoted Pluto from planet status, people around the world have seen what was once little more than a tiny dot transformed into a complex world via NASA's New Horizons mission.

As Principal Investigator Alan Stern told SpaceFlight Insider, the planet definition adopted by just four percent of the IAU on August 24, 2006, remains controversial and rejected by many planetary scientists ten years later. “The controversy is about a definition that includes all planets around other stars and small planets. It is inherently biased against small planets,” Stern said. (8/24)

3-D Galaxy-Mapping Project Enters Construction Phase (Source: Space Daily)
A 3-D sky-mapping project that will measure the light of millions of galaxies has received formal - approval from the U.S. Department of Energy to move forward with construction. Installation of the project, called DESI (Dark Energy Spectroscopic Instrument), is set to begin next year at the Nicholas U. Mayall 4-meter telescope at Kitt Peak National Observatory near Tucson, Ariz., with observations starting up in January 2019. (8/24)

Yearlong Mars Simulation Nears End in Hawaii (Source: Popular Mechanics)
Six scientists are close to wrapping up a year of near isolation in a Mars simulation on a Hawaii mountain. The scientists are housed in a dome on Mauna Loa and can go outside only in spacesuits, the Hawaii Tribune-Herald reported. They manage limited resources while conducting research and working to avoid personal conflicts.

Communication is delayed the 20 minutes, the length it would take to relay messages from Mars. Kim Binsted, principal investigator for the Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation, said this simulation is the second-longest of its kind after a mission that lasted 520 days in Russia. "They're doing OK as far as we can tell," Binsted said of the scientists. Previous simulations in the Mauna Loa dome have lasted four to eight months. (8/24)

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