March 17, 2017

Mental Health in Outer Space (Source: Scientific American)
NASA says there have been no behavioral emergencies on U.S. space flights—yet. But in 2007, a woman named Lisa Nowak drove 900 miles to the Orlando airport, bringing a knife, a mallet, rubber tubing, and a BB gun. At the airport, she wore a black wig and followed Air Force Captain Colleen Shipman in the parking lot. After Shipman declined to give her a ride, Nowak began crying and then tried to pepper spray Shipman, according to police reports.

Nowak was subsequently arrested and charged with attempted murder. Police said she had planned to harm Shipman over an apparent love triangle. The case drew international headlines and, over the next two years, media outlets followed whether Nowak would pursue an insanity defense in court. Nowak was an astronaut, as was her love interest in the triangle.

This bizarre incident called attention to NASA's medical practices and the role of mental health in space flight. Just months earlier, Nowak had flown on the shuttle Discovery to the International Space Station, where she controlled robotic instruments during spacewalks. Now, she awaited criminal trial, reportedly diagnosed with a brief psychotic disorder and major depression, among other conditions. Click here. (3/14)

Space Sex is Serious Business (Source: Five Thirty Eight)
Mark Lee and Jan Davis met during training for a space shuttle mission and kept their relationship quiet long enough to ensure that it would be difficult to replace them on the mission, as NASA normally would have done under its then-unwritten rule that banned married astronauts from flying together. And so, in September 1992, Lee and Davis became the first (and, after the unwritten rule became a written one, possibly last) married couple in space.

NASA says no humans have had sex in space. There’s nothing other than speculation to suggest otherwise. (Well, speculation and a vague sense that we would want to try it, given half a chance.) But you aren’t a total junior-high pervert for wondering. Sex — or, rather, reproduction — has piqued the curiosity of scientists, too. When they went to space together, Lee and Davis even spent some time artificially inseminating frog eggs for the greater good. (3/14)

Dark Matter is Missing From Young Galaxies (Source: Ars Technica)
One of the earliest indications of the existence of dark matter came from an examination of the rotation of nearby galaxies. The study showed that stars orbit the galaxy at speeds that indicate there's more mass there than the visible matter would indicate. Now, researchers have taken this analysis back in time, to a period when the Universe was only a couple billion years old, and the ancestors of today's large galaxies were forming stars at a rapid clip.

Oddly, the researchers find no need for dark matter to explain the rotation of these early galaxies. While there are a number of plausible explanations for dark matter's absence at this early stage of galaxy formation, it does suggest our models of the early Universe could use some refining.

The measurements at issue here are what are called the "galaxy rotation curves." These curves track the speed at which stars rotate as a function of their distance from the center of the galaxy. If regular matter were all that was present, it would be easy to predict what we'd see. Close to the galaxy's center, stars would only feel a portion of the total galactic mass, so they would orbit at a relatively sedate speed. Any faster, and their orbits would shift outward. (3/15)

Florida Student Scientists Select Menu for Astronauts (Source: Space Daily)
Several thousand middle and high school students from Miami-Dade County in Florida are supporting plant researchers at NASA's Kennedy Space Center. The KSC scientists have partnered with Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden in Miami to create STEM-based challenges for teachers and students in the area. There are two challenges-Growing Beyond Earth and Green Cuisine: The Flavor of Space Travel.

Over this past school year, the students participated in Growing Beyond Earth by growing crops in mini botany labs provided to each of the participating schools by Fairchild. Each lab mimics NASA's Veggie plant growth system currently aboard the space station, and the students had to follow research protocols set forth by NASA and Fairchild while testing factors that could influence plant growth, flavor and nutrition-all so they can help NASA pick the next crops to grow for the astronauts aboard the station.

"The Veggie team at KSC is excited to be working with Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden and middle and high schools groups to help us identify future varieties and best growing practices for use on the International Space Station," said Dr. Gioia Massa, Veggie project scientist. "We plan to use the data from the student research to help us determine what to grow and how to grow it in Veggie experiments in the future." (3/15)

FSU Scientist Finds Inorganic "Fossils" May Complicate Search for Life (Source: Space Daily)
An international team of researchers discovered that inorganic chemicals can self-organize into complex structures that mimic primitive life on Earth. Florida State University scientist Oliver Steinbock and a colleague in Spain found that fossil-like objects grew in natural spring water abundant in the early stages of the planet. But they were inorganic materials that resulted from simple chemical reactions.

This complicates the identification of Earth's earliest microfossils and redefines the search for life on other planets and moons. "Inorganic microstructures can potentially be indistinguishable from ancient traces of life both in morphology and chemical composition," Garcia-Ruiz said. Scientists had seen hints of this in past lab work, but now through Steinbock and Garcia-Ruiz's research, it is clear that this also happened in nature. (3/15)

Georgia Spaceflight Liability Bill Advances in State's Senate (Source: Atlanta Journal Constitution)
The state Senate backed a bill Thursday clearing the way for commercial space flight launches in Georgia, starting a crucial countdown toward final passage. The Georgia Space Flight Act essentially sets legal rules over liability involving private property and any would-be astronauts, a first for the state. It says that those participants would have to assume the risks for injuries or accidents and sign “informed consent” waivers, except in cases of gross negligence by the company sponsoring the flight. The bill passed on a 44-6 vote. Because of changes made in a Senate committee, it now goes back to the House for review. (3/16)

NASA Budget Would Cut Earth Science and Education (Source: Washington Post)
The total cut to the Earth-science budget is $102 million, or 5 percent of the program’s annual budget, and it almost exclusively targets missions aimed at understanding climate change — the ocean monitoring program PACE; the Orbiting Carbon ­Observatory-3; the Deep Space Climate Observatory; and the CLARREO Pathfinder, which measures heat in Earth’s atmosphere.

Also on the chopping block: the entire NASA Education office, which runs camps and enrichment programs, provides internships and scholarships for young scientists, and oversees efforts to support women and underrepresented minorities in science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, fields.

Editor's Note: I believe this would mean eliminating NASA's nationwide network of Space Grant Consortia. The Florida Space Grant Consortium, headquarted at UCF in Orlando, sponsors internships and co-ops, and has long partnered with the state of Florida to fund space research projects that are consistent with the state's space diversification priorities. (3/16)

Trump Budget Would Fund SLS/Orion (Source: Washington Post)
Overall, Trump would shrink funding for NASA slightly, to $19.1 billion from about $19.3 billion, according to a blueprint of the president’s budget requests for 2018. The largest portion of funds would go to the agency’s human exploration division, with $3.7 billion for the Orion crew vehicle and Space Launch System (SLS) jumbo rocket, spacecraft that NASA says will one day get humans to Mars. The outlined budget also instructs NASA to “investigate approaches for reducing the costs of exploration missions to enable a more expansive exploration program.”

Editor's Note: This may be a sign that Alabama's forces remain potent in the Trump administration. The Huntsville-led SLS rocket program has been a controversial program, with detractors arguing that existing and proposed commercial launch systems will be able to meet many of NASA's ultimate SLS requirements without the multi-billion dollar cost. (3/16)

Booming Space Launch Business Requires Rethinking of Ranges (Source:
Most launch ranges aren't equipped to handle reusable rockets, space experts said, despite the technology being widely viewed as a key to reducing launch costs. "The traditional range systems simply do not have sufficient capability to accommodate the emergence of multiple reusable flying elements," said Jim Ball of Spaceport Strategies.

Ball pointed to Cape Canaveral, where private launch companies are working to expand their operations. "Launch activity just at that spaceport could climb to 100 to 200 launches annually," he said. "We clearly have a system that cannot support that." The issue isn't relegated to the U.S. alone. "We see an expanding worldwide infrastructure devoted to space transportation," Ball said. "We are not alone in this enterprise, nor should we expect to be."

What's going to be required is for private companies and governments to realize that space launches are going to start becoming routine occurrences, and plan accordingly. Space transit needs to start seeing the same regulations and infrastructure support as other travel, Ball said. (3/16)

Trump Flips Science the Bird with New Budget (Source: Ars Technica)
First and foremost, President Trump's proposed budget is focused on the military, which will see a $54 billion increase in spending, offset by cuts or wholesale elimination of programs elsewhere. Science is clearly not a priority, as it is repeatedly targeted for cuts in every agency that funds it.

But those cuts aren't evenly distributed. NASA's budget sees a relatively minor reduction, with Earth sciences research funded by the agency will be cut to expand funding elsewhere. The National Science Foundation, a major source of grants for fundamental research, isn't even mentioned, so there's no sense of how it will fare. And the harshest cuts appear to be directed at biomedical research, which will see a dramatic 20% drop in funding for the National Institutes of Health.

Science in the Department of Energy would also face severe cuts, with a budget that "demonstrates the administration's commitment to reasserting the proper role of what has become a sprawling federal government." While the Department's overall budget would be down by 5.6 percent (down to $28 billion), shifting funds within the DOE would result in a de-emphasis on energy and physics in order to provide more money for nuclear weapons programs. (3/16)

OneWeb Breaks Ground at Cape Canaveral Spaceport for Satellite Facility (Source OneWeb)
During a ceremony with Florida Gov. Rick Scott, OneWeb Satellites CEO Brian Holz and Airbus President Mike Cosentino, it was announced that the factory at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center is set to begin its full series, autonomous assembly line production, integration and satellite testing later this year. OneWeb Satellites is a joint venture between OneWeb, a satellite-based internet provider, and Airbus, the world’s second largest space company, with its first order to include the production of 900 communications satellites for OneWeb’s low Earth orbit constellation. (3/6)

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