August 28, 2016

They’re Not Saying It’s Aliens, But Signal Traced to Sunlike Star Sparks SETI Interest (Source: GeekWire)
SETI researchers are buzzing about a strong spike in radio signals that seemed to come from the direction of a sunlike star in the constellation Hercules, known as HD 164595. The signal conceivably fits the profile for an intentional transmission from an extraterrestrial source – but it could also be a case of earthly radio interference, or a microlensing event in which the star’s gravitational field focused stray signals coming from much farther away.

In any case, the blip is interesting enough to merit discussion by those who specialize in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, or SETI – including Centauri Dreams’ Paul Gilster, who brought the case into the public eye this weekend. Gilster reports that the signal spike was detected more than a year ago, on May 15, 2015, by the RATAN-600 radio telescope in the Russian republic of Karachay-Cherkessia.

The apparent source of the signal, HD 164595, is interesting for a couple of reasons: It’s a sunlike star, about 95 light-years away from Earth, and it’s already known to have at least one “warm Neptune” planet called HD 164595 b. “There could, of course, be other planets still undetected in this system,” Gilster says. Doug Vakoch, president of San Francisco-based METI International, said his research group plans to try observing HD 164595 as early as tonight, using the Boquete Optical SETI Observatory in Panama. (8/28)

Stop Describing a Planet as 'Earth-Like' Unless it Really Is (Source: Mashable)
Publications declared it what could be the finding of the century, speculating on possible alien life just on our doorstep, circling Proxima Centauri, the dim red star closest to our sun. Above all, journalists chose to refer to Proxima b as an "Earth-like" planet, calling to mind oceans, trees and, for most people reading a general interest publication, advanced life.

That's a fascinating narrative, and one that's sure to draw people into a story, but there's just one problem with it: It's not true. Yes, it's amazing that this possibly rocky planet is orbiting a star just 4 light-years away, possibly close enough to one day launch a mission to, but there is still so much we don't know about this brave new world. Plus, Proxima b is far from being a twin of our planet.

Scientists aren't sure what kind of atmosphere it has or even if it's able to support a magnetic field, two things that it would need to sustain habitability in orbit around its active, flaring star. We simply don't know if it can support water, life or much of anything on its surface at all. Beyond the inaccuracy in this particular case, calling a planet "Earth-like" without knowing if it actually is, threatens to give members of the public a false sense of just how unique (or average) our Earth is. (8/28)

How Satellite Images are Helping Find the World’s Hidden Poor (Source: Washington Post)
Satellite images can reveal a lot of surprising secrets about the world. They have given us insight into the Islamic State’s destruction of archaeological sites, illegal logging in Brazil and black markets operating in North Korea. Now, images from space are also rapidly becoming a tool to help fight poverty, by giving researchers a badly needed look at how people are really living in the world’s poorest places.

You might be thinking that the state of global poverty isn’t exactly a secret. Organizations like the IMF, for example, publish spreadsheets of numbers about economics development. But often there is a lot of guesswork behind these figures. Researchers gather this data by going door to door, and then extrapolating those figures out to a national level. Poor countries often lack the resources to do this; other times, governments just don’t want to, for fear of publishing statistics that show they are doing a bad job.

This is especially a problem in the parts of the world that suffer from the worst poverty, like sub-Saharan Africa. In fact, between 2000 and 2010, 14 African countries carried out no surveys from which national poverty statistics could be constructed at all, the World Bank says. These statistics are important because international organizations, governments and charities need them in order to design poverty alleviation programs that work — for example, to meet the U.N.'s ambitious goal to end global poverty by 2030. (8/24)

Still Waiting for Humans on Mars (Source: The Hill)
For over 50 years the United States has talked about sending humans to explore the planet Mars. Landing humans on Mars has been an integral goal of U.S. space policy for many years, and the Red Planet has garnered more interest and enthusiasm from the general public than any other destination in space exploration. So why hasn’t humanity cut the gravitational umbilical cord holding us down on our home planet? Why haven’t we walked yet on Mars? What are we waiting for? Click here. (8/28)

Clinton or Trump. Who's Better for Space? (Source: Florida Today)
Maybe Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton aren’t desperate enough yet to win the most important region in the biggest battleground state. If they were, they would have visited Florida’s Space Coast by now or said something meaningful about the space program.

They would have asked the I-4 Corridor’s swing voters to trust them with one of America’s greatest sources of technical innovation and our region’s most powerful economic engine. They might have sent good potential surrogates on the issue, Newt Gingrich and Tim Kaine, to tour Kennedy Space Center and say how their ticket will do better than President Obama.

They surely would have asked speechwriters for a line or two on how space exploration fits their vision for a better America. “You can’t make America great again without a great space program,” said Dale Ketcham, Chief of Strategic Alliance at Space Florida. See how easy it is? Instead, they have missed an opportunity to win important votes while standing up for a mission that Americans everywhere still believe in. Click here. (8/28)

SpaceX, ULA Set Launch Dates for September (Source: Orlando Business Journal)
More satellites and a spacecraft will hit orbit in September, thanks to a couple of upcoming launches at the Cape Canaveral Spaceport. SpaceX will blast-off its Falcon 9 rocket Sep. 3 between 3-5 a.m. carrying the Amos 6 communications satellite for Israel-based Space Communication. ULA will launch NASA's OSIRIS-REx asteroid probe on Sep. 8 between 7-9 p.m. Editor's Note: Both companies are also planning September launches from California's Vandenberg AFB spaceport. (8/28)

SpaceX’s Biggest Rival is Developing “Space Trucks” to Ferry Cargo in an Orbital Economy (Source: Quartz)
The big kahuna of American rocket companies is the United Launch Alliance, which until this year held a monopoly on the lucrative business of launching rockets for the Air Force. But that monopoly is no more. The company faces a new era of competition. ULA, for its part, isn’t sitting still. “I came here to transform the company, position it in this new competitive marketplace with all these different players,” says CEO Tony Bruno.

Key to all of this is making it cheaper to actually get to space. As of 2015, SpaceX was able to cut the retail cost of its rockets to less than $100 million—as low as $62 million for certain commercial launches—while the cheapest ULA rocket costs $164 million to fly. In his first full year in charge, ULA returned more than $400 million in operating profits to its two owners, but the company must prepare for when its final no-bid launch contract expires in 2019. One “game changer” that’s key to Bruno’s plan? Space trucks.

Bruno has responded to the competitive challenge with better blocking and tackling—”we’ve taken about 36% percent of the costs out of our supply chain”—and building a whole new launch vehicle, the Vulcan, to compete. He also has a vision, rivaling Musk’s in its ambition, of a growing economy between the Earth and the moon. ULA is instead looking to the second stage of the rocket as a source of cost-savings and efficiency. Only ULA wouldn’t relaunch the used stage from Earth. Click here. (8/27)

What's Up with Vulcan Reusability? (Source: SPACErePORT)
ULA CEO Tory Bruno has garnered much attention for his plans to develop Vulcan as a replacement for ULA's Atlas and Delta rockets. Last year, the company revealed its vision for a reusable engine module, which would separate from Vulcan's first stage and be air-snatched by a helicopter as it parachuted back to earth. More recently, ULA has touted its concept for an ACES upper stage, which would remain in orbit after launch to be reused as a 'space truck' for moving payloads around cislunar space.

In recent articles about Vulcan (like the one above), and on ULA's own website, all talk of reusability has shifted to ACES, with no mention of the first-stage engine recovery/reuse. Bruno's most recent public mention of rocket reusability, at the 2016 Space Symposium in April, seemed to dismiss SpaceX's reuse scheme as fiscally unsound: “When we looked at that math [for SpaceX's approach], we figure you’ve got to do about 10 reuses to break even, which is pointless because you’re doing this to save money, so you’ve got to do this about 15 times.”

He suggested ULA's engines-only reuse approach was more sensible: “The economic hurdle to break even [for Vulcan] is only two reuses and it’s five times easier. Our approach is to start there.” But ULA has been largely silent on this concept since then, without even a mention on the Vulcan website. So is the company still committed to first-stage engine reuse? While ACES may be a terrific idea for enabling future cislunar economic development, it is unclear whether it does anything to reduce ULA's launch costs as the company works to increase its competitiveness. (8/28)

What Life Was Like for Crew Members of the Year-long Mars Simulation (Source: Travel + Leisure)
NASA’s longest Earth-based Mars simulation will be complete this Sunday. Run by the University of Hawaii, the Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation—or HI-SEAS—will have lasted for one year, making it the second-longest project of its kind (after a 520-day mission that was conducted in Russia). For the last year, the six crew members in the simulation have been housed in a dome in the remote habitat of Mauna Lao in Hawaii. Click here. (8/28)

Transparency Lacking in Spaceport America Leadership Search (Source: Las Cruces Sun-News)
There may be no more important hire in southern New Mexico this year than the next person who is selected to lead Spaceport America. Sadly, we have lost all faith that the process will be comprehensive or transparent. It was decided early on that, instead of hiring a search firm to lead the effort, the Spaceport Authority would rely on social media to get the word out.

A subcommittee of four members of the Spaceport Authority board of directors was selected to review applications with former CEO Christine Anderson and send the best ones to Santa Fe for Gov. Susana Martinez. But before that subcommittee could hold its first meeting, the decision was made to call off the search and ship the applications to the governor’s office.

The Sun-News filed an open records request on Aug. 16 seeking copies of the applications being turned over to the governor’s office. The response from the Spaceport Authority was that they would be unable to comply with the requirement that documents be produced within three business days, and would need until the end of the month instead. That’s troubling, given that Spaceport Authority board Chairman Rick Holdridge has said that it is his intention to have a new CEO named well before then if possible. (8/28)

NASA Thinks Tesla Autopilot is a Bad Idea (Source: CSM)
Since news broke last month that the driver of a Tesla Model S running on the Autopilot driver-assistance system died in a crash, the technology has inspired intense debate. Regulators are investigating the crash to determine whether the fault was with the human driver, Autopilot itself—or a combination of both. Now, one agency with a significant amount of relevant experience has weighed in.

NASA has been studying the pychological effects of automation for decades, and thus may have something to teach Tesla. Even if Autopilot had greater capability, NASA's Casner highlighted a crucial difference between the operation of cars and airplanes that makes its use much riskier. An autopilot system temporarily takes the human operator out of the loop of control, and the transition back to human control cannot happen instantaneously.

But because airplanes fly several miles up in the sky, pilots typically have a minute or more to transition from autopilot back to manual control. That's not the case with cars, where drivers may have 1 second or less to react to an emergency situation. Humans also have trouble paying attention when automated systems are running, NASA has found. (8/27)

Rocket Crafters Featured at Small Satellite Conference (Source: SpaceFlight Insider)
At the recent 30th Annual Conference on Small Satellites, former astronaut and Rocket Crafters Inc. (RCI) CEO Sid Gutierrez along with RCI Treasurer Paul Larsen had the opportunity to describe the Company’s Intrepid-1 launch vehicle to a very select audience. Gutierrez explained how RCI’s unique approach and patented additive manufacturing technology enables it to build a safe, reliable, and affordable launcher.

Gutierrez shared: “We don’t use dangerous hypergolic propellants like hydrazine or explosive solid-propellants either. We don’t use expensive high-speed turbopumps that are prone to failure, no cryogenics or cryogenic tanks and plumbing, items that only serve to drive up cost; and our launcher has only two moving parts per engine. We employ extensive use of factory robotics in manufacturing with minimal touch labor.”

During the conference, many speakers – including one of the keynote speakers – expressed the opinion that liquid bi-propellant rocket technology is too expensive to develop and operate to meet the launch price point needed to make small satellites economically viable for the many anticipated missions. Another speaker presented analysis supporting his conclusion that only hybrid rocket engines (like those being developed by RCI) possess the inherent characteristics to make this happen. (8/26)

Scientists, True Believers Gather in Orlando for Annual UFO Symposium (Source: Orlando Sentinel)
MUFON, short for the Mutual UFO Network, is a science-based organization that investigates and researches the phenomenon of the existence of aliens and their connection or contact with Earth. This year's event, "UFOs: From our Oceans to Outer Space,"ends Sunday at the Hilton Lake Buena Vista Hotel near Walt Disney World. Symposium attendees range from true believers and UFO enthusiasts to skeptics and those determined to debunk any finding of extraterrestrial life. (8/28)

Orion Heat Shield Delivered to KSC (Source: Florida Today)
A critical piece of an Orion crew exploration capsule arrived Thursday at Kennedy Space Center, more than two years before a planned unmanned test flight around the moon. A NASA Super Guppy aircraft touched down on the former shuttle runway with the structure that will support the Orion’s head shield, which is designed to withstand temperatures exceeding 4,500 degrees Fahrenheit. With a diameter of 16.5 feet, the heat shield is the largest ever built for a crew capsule. (8/27)

NASA Spacecraft Juno Skims Jupiter's Clouds in Record-Breaking Mission (Source: Guardian)
A spacecraft has skimmed the clouds of Jupiter in a record-breaking close approach to the giant planet. Juno activated its whole suite of nine instruments as it soared 2,600 miles above Jupiter’s swirling cloudtops, travelling at 130,000mph, on Saturday.

NASA tweeted that Juno had successfully completed its closest ever fly-by to the planet right on schedule. It is the first of 36 such passes that the craft is scheduled to make over the next 18 months. Mission controllers at the space agency expect to capture stunning images and a wealth of scientific data from the approach, but it will take some days for all the data collected to be downloaded to Earth. (8/27)

China: the New Space Superpower (Source: Guardian)
An increasing number of Chinese rockets have launched in the past few years but this one was significant for three reasons. It was the first launch of the new Long March 7 rocket, designed to help the Chinese place a multi-module space station in orbit. It was the first liftoff from China’s newly constructed Wenchang launch complex, a purpose-built facility set to become the focus for Chinese space ambitions. And it was the first Chinese launch where tourists were encouraged to go along and watch.

For a space program that has long been shrouded in secrecy, it’s a major step. The Wenchang complex has been designed with large viewing areas, and in the sultry heat of that June night, tens of thousands of spectators stood cheering as the rocket began its 394km journey above the Earth and into orbit. China is estimated to spend around $6bn a year on its space program. Although that is almost $1bn more than Russia, it is still a fraction of the American space budget, which is around $40bn a year. (8/28)

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