May 13, 2017

Meet the Three Irish Winners at This Year’s NASA Global Hackathon (Source: Silicon Republic)
With vast amounts of data being generated annually by NASA, both by satellites trained on Earth and into deep space, it makes sense to find creative ways to make use of it. Each year, NASA holds the Space Apps Challenge, whereby teams from around the world get to tap into the space agency’s open source database of information collected from space missions, satellites and other sources.

It is then up to the participants to think of, and build, a solution – be it for an astronomical mystery that has yet to be uncovered, or something that might benefit people down here on Earth. At this year’s event, more than 125,000 people across 187 events in 69 countries took part, making it one of the largest hackathons in the world.

Ireland’s contribution to the event held at the end of April saw 50 people split into eight teams. They worked over a period of 48 hours at the Trinity Biomedical Sciences Institute. Once it concluded, a panel of local and international space industry experts selected two teams to represent Dublin in NASA’s global selection round, taking place over the next two weeks. Click here. (5/12)

DARPA XS-1 Spaceplane: Contract Decision Near? (Source: Leonard David)
DARPA may soon award a contract for the XS-1 spaceplane. According to Air Force Magazine, DARPA has entered the final stages of a “downselect” to choose one company to proceed into the flying phase of the spaceplane. In Phase 1 of XS-1, DARPA awarded prime contracts to three companies, each working in concert with a commercial launch provider: Boeing (working with Blue Origin); Masten (working with XCOR); and Northrop Grumman (working with Virgin Galactic).

“After downselect, a critical design review would take place in 2018 and a series of flights could be made as early as 2020. One of the program requirements is to fly 10 suborbital or orbital missions in as many days, achieving space operations with ‘aircraft-like’ frequency, DARPA said. If successful, a ‘public-private partnership’ model of operating the vehicles could be adopted, DARPA documents show,” Air Force Magazine’s John Tirpak reports. Click here. (5/13)

Robotics Mining Competition at KSC Visitor Complex (Source: NASA)
Teams of undergraduate and graduate students from throughout the nation will demonstrate their excavator robots May 22-26 NASA's 2017 Robotics Mining Competition (RMC) at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. NASA’s Women in STEM mentoring event for RMC participants is also planned on May 25 at the visitor complex.

More than 45 teams have designed and built remote-controlled excavator robots to traverse the simulated Martian terrain and excavate simulated Martian dirt. During the competition, the teams' robots will go head-to-head to determine which machine can collect and move the most regolith within a specified amount of time. (5/12)

Why Would Aliens Even Bother With Earth (Source: Literary Hub)
As an astrobiologist I spend a lot of my time working in the lab with samples from some of the most extreme places on Earth, investigating how life might survive on other worlds in our solar system and what signs of their existence we could detect. If there is biology beyond the Earth, the vast majority of life in the Galaxy will be microbial—hardy single-celled life forms that tolerate a much greater range of conditions than more complex organisms can.

To be honest, my own point of view is pretty pessimistic. Don’t get me wrong—if the Earth received an alien tweet tomorrow, or some other text message beamed at us by radio or laser pulse, then I’d be absolutely thrilled. So far, though, we’ve seen no convincing evidence of other civilizations among the stars in our skies. Click here. (5/12)

Dreaming of a DIY Mission to Mars (Source: PRI)
Until pretty recently, a trip to the planet Mars seemed less like the future than a relic of the past. Cue a sizzle reel of the space race: Leonid Brezhnev, the former Soviet leader, in his overcoat, scientists in white lab coats and rockets blasting off on a black-and-white TV. Then came Elon Musk with SpaceX, Jeff Bezos with Blue Origin and Matt Damon with "The Martian," spawning a level of interest in space exploration not seen since the end of the Apollo era. Click here. (5/12)

Adler honors woman helping launch Virgin Galactic (Source: Chicago Tribune)
Beth Moses believes many of the world's differences can be solved by getting people off of it. Space travel, she said, could be a great unifier. "You don't see borders or strife from space. You see a connected world," the aerospace engineer said. "It gives us a perspective of our place on it." She's on a mission to help more folks get that perspective.

Moses is helping to usher in the age of space as a travel experience, heading training for customers of the Virgin Galactic commercial spaceline. The former NASA engineer, who worked on the International Space Station, accepted the Women in Space Science Award from the Adler Planetarium's Women's Board Thursday at The Drake Hotel. (5/12)

The Boring Co. Begins Tunneling with ‘Godot’ Machine at SpaceX (Source: Daily Breeze)
Elon Musk’s The Boring Co. began work Friday morning on the horizontal shaft it’s digging to test technologies for a network of underground tunnels to ease Southern California’s traffic woes. The SpaceX and Tesla founder posted the news on his Twitter and Instagram accounts, along with a series of photos about 8 a.m.

“First tunnel for The Boring Company begins,” Musk said in a photo caption of the tunnel’s entrance in SpaceX’s parking lot along Crenshaw Boulevard. “Full length of first tunnel will run from LAX to Culver City, Santa Monica, Westwood and Sherman Oaks. Future tunnels will cover all of greater L.A.”

Musk has been teasing the public about his tunnel-building plans for more than a year. His plans are for a connected web of high-speed tunnel freeways deep underneath Los Angeles. After obtaining a tunnel-boring machine, Musk said he wants to ferry vehicles into the underground network on an elevator. The cars would then be deposited onto a 125 mph “electric sled.” (5/12)

Russia May Deliver Research Module to Space Station in 2018 (Source: Tass)
Russia’s Nauka multi-functional lab module plagued by the contamination problem in its fuel tanks will be delivered to the ISS no sooner than August next year. "Today, specialists of the Khrunichev Space Center and the Energiya will hold a meeting to approve a new schedule for eliminating faults and preparing the module for the launch. According to the most optimistic forecasts, the module can be launched no sooner than August next year," the source said.

However, late 2018 - 2019 is the real timeframe for the launch, he added. The Khrunichev Space Center said "work is under way in compliance with the schedule to rectify faults revealed earlier....The launch date will be determined following the results of the joint work by the Khrunichev Center and the Energiya Rocket and Space Corporation."

A source in the Russian rocket and space industry said in early April that specialists planned to cut the module’s fuel tanks in half after finding contamination inside them for their subsequent cleaning. (5/12)

Japan Aims to Double its Space Market to $21bn by 2030s (Source: Nikkei)
The Japanese government has set a goal of doubling its space market to about 2.4 trillion yen ($21.1 billion) by the early 2030s. The sector comprises two main segments: equipment, including the development of rockets and satellites; and utilization, such as the use of satellite data. The country has until now largely focused on the hardware side of the industry, but the government wants to place more emphasis on the software side. (5/12)

SpaceX May Finally Be Reaching a Nirvana of High Flight Rates (Source: Ars Technica)
Due to accidents, production issues, and other factors, SpaceX has in recent years failed to achieve a "high volume" launch rate of a dozen or more Falcon 9 rockets per year. Famously, the company has a backlog of 70 or more missions, which SpaceX estimates to be worth $10 billion.

Even with a static-fire accident that destroyed a rocket and its payload on September 1, last year was the company's most successful year in terms of overall launches with its workhorse Falcon 9 booster. Prior to the accident, SpaceX had made eight flights of the Falcon 9 rocket, a cadence of one launch per month.

Since SpaceX returned to flight on January 17 of this year, five Falcon 9 rockets have launched, and the sixth mission is scheduled for Monday. If that rocket takes off on schedule, it would give the company six launches in four months. A seventh launch could come just two weeks later at the beginning of June. (5/12)

NASA Pays the Price of Being Subjected to a Massive, Expensive Rocket (Source: Ars Technica)
The SLS rocket was born in 2010 with the budget authorization bill signed into law by President Obama in October. In doing so, the president bowed to the will of Congress, and, more specifically, the US Senate, which wanted NASA to build a big rocket. However, after that legislation was signed into law, NASA engineers and their consultants began studying the rocket and how best to build it. What they found is that the SLS rocket would not fit within the agency's budget run-out, and its costs would be too high for the agency to handle.

Notably, an August 2011 analysis by the consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton offered a stark warning for any rosy SLS cost estimates. "There are many instances of unjustified cost reductions in the program estimates," the analysis said. "This exposes the programs to cost risk and undermines the credibility of the estimate." Inevitably, this would lead to delays and force NASA to cut any funding that would go toward payloads to fly on the rocket.

In 2011, when NASA officials pushed back on these budget questions with congressional staffers, Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, a Texas Republican, had a message for the agency's chief financial officer, Beth Robinson: don't worry about the money—I'll get you the money. Hutchison, however, would leave the Senate about a year later. (5/12)

The ISS Has Sprung a Leak (Source: BGR)
The International Space Station is old. The first pieces of it were sent into orbit almost two decades ago, and it’s been under near constant construction and remodeling ever since, adding new components and expanding the craft’s usefulness. But it’s still old. We were reminded of that today when a much-anticipated spacewalk at the ISS was delayed due to an unfortunate malfunction: a water leak.

According to NASA, the leak was discovered just before two US astronauts — Peggy Whitson and Jack Fischer — were scheduled to perform the 200th spacewalk at the International Space Station. The leak was found while the astronauts were waiting in the airlock, and was traced to the connection between an umbilical hose attached to Fischer’s spacesuit and the ISS itself. The umbilical, which acts as the lifeline between the astronauts as the ISS, provides power to the batteries in their equipment and circulates oxygen.

Thankfully, NASA has a contingency plan for just such an occurrence: ditching the troublesome hose and just using one, for both astronauts. Now, instead of each astronaut having a functioning connection to the spacecraft, they’ll just trade off, handing the connector back and forth and utilizing backup battery power in their suits when not connected. NASA maintained that the actual spacesuits worn by the astronauts are “perfectly fine.” (5/12)

NASA Won't Fly Humans on First SLS Missio After All (Source: The Verge)
When NASA’s next big rocket launches for the first time, chances are good it won’t have people on board. For the last two months, the space agency has been studying what it would take to fly a crew of two on the maiden flight of the Space Launch System, or SLS — the monster rocket that NASA has been developing to take people into deep space and on to Mars.

Specifically, NASA wanted to know if such a crewed flight could be done safely by 2019. But after figuring out the costs and challenges associated with putting astronauts on that inaugural mission, called EM-1, NASA says doing a crewed flight first wouldn’t be the best way to go. “After evaluating cost, risk, and technical factors in a project of this magnitude, it is difficult to accommodate changes needed for a crewed EM-1 mission at this time,” NASA’s acting administrator, Robert Lightfoot said. (5/12)

Fast Radio Bursts Have Astronomers Confused (Source: BGR)
Researchers from around the world are scratching their heads over a newly discovered radio burst detected on Earth, but with a completely unknown origin. A new report describing the event and the subsequent investigation is now available online, but the key takeaway is that despite our best efforts and wealth of technology employed to discover the source, humanity has simply come up short. What’s even more bizarre is that this isn’t the first time it’s happened.

Scientists call them “fast radio bursts,” or FRBs for short, and they’ve been confounding researchers for some time now. This newest burst, labeled FRB 150215 is the latest of 22 detected FRBs thus far, but it’s also the most frustrating for those hunting for the source.

FRB 150215 was first detected in Australia by scientists running the Parkes Telescope, but once the radio burst arrived, many other research groups with their own powerful telescopes sprung into action in search of the source. Despite their best efforts, nobody has been able to figure out where the radio burst originated, which is odd for a number of reasons, but the strangest thing about FRB 150215 — and FRBs in general — is that anything powerful enough to produce a radio burst that could be detected on Earth, yet remain completely out of sight, must be absolutely massive in scale. (5/12)

Tired of Losing Telescopes at Sea, NASA Testing New Recovery System at Wallops (Source: DelMarVa Now)
A new mechanism being tested on a Wallops Flight Facility sounding rocket Tuesday could give NASA broader abilities to scan the skies. The Black Brant IX sounding rocket, which is scheduled to launch between 5:45 and 6:40 a.m., is set to ferry two dozen experiments and previously untested technologies briefly into space, NASA said.

“Sounding rockets are not only used for conducting science missions but also provide an excellent platform for technology development," said Cathy Hesh, technology manager for the sounding rocket program office at Wallops. "While the flight is short in duration, enough flight time is provided to test the new technologies.” (5/12)

NASA Won’t Rush Astronauts Back to the Moon to Please Donald Trump (Source: Quartz)
In February, at the behest of the White House, NASA said it would consider adding two astronauts to the first integrated launch of its new Space Launch System rocket and Orion space capsule, planned for 2018. That NASA would even try to accommodate US presidential Donald Trump’s hope to see human passengers on what was meant to be an unmanned mission surprised many observers, given NASA’s traditionally deliberate and risk-reducing approach to human spaceflight.

But it’s not going to happen. Robert Lightfoot, the agency’s acting director, said that a study found that putting crew members on the first mission, known as EM-1 or Exploration Mission One, was “technically feasible, as long as we had additional resources and schedule.” However, after discussions with the White House, Lightfoot said NASA and the new administration decided “that the baseline plan we had in place was the best way for us to go.” (5/12)

Trump Wants ‘Goddamned Steam,’ Not Digital Catapults on Aircraft Carriers (Source: The Atlantic)
Navy officials were “blindsided” on Thursday, a spokesman told me, by President Donald Trump’s suggestion that he has convinced the Navy to abandon a long-planned digital launching system in favor of steam on its newest aircraft carrier. Trump described his disgust with the catapult system known as Electro-Magnetic Aircraft Launch System, nicknamed EMALS, aboard the USS Gerald R. Ford.

The president described wanting to scrap EMALS, a key technological upgrade at the center of the multibillion-dollar carrier project, and return to steam. "It sounded bad to me. Digital. They have digital. What is digital? And it’s very complicated, you have to be Albert Einstein to figure it out. And I said—and now they want to buy more aircraft carriers. I said, 'What system are you going to be—' 'Sir, we’re staying with digital.' I said, 'No you’re not. You going to goddamned steam, the digital costs hundreds of millions of dollars more money and it’s no good.' "

The Navy says it is scrambling to figure out how to address the president’s concerns. A spokesman said it will issue a statement on Thursday afternoon, and figure out talking points for Naval leaders should the question come up at public events. In the meantime, Trump might do well to worry more about the signature infrastructure promise of his own campaign, than a near-complete military project he doesn’t seem to understand. (5/11)

Air Force Secretary Wilson Will Serve as PDSA (Source: Space News)
Newly confirmed Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson will assume the principal Defense Department space adviser role, a senior Air Force official said May 9. There had been speculation on whether the Trump administration would continue the so-called PDSA position established under the Obama administration, or replace it with a different means of organizing space leadership at the Pentagon. The White House has yet to give a definitive answer. (5/11)

Good Signs for NASA Continuity From Obama to Trump (Source: Space News)
NASA and industry see continuity in NASA's Mars plans despite a change in administrations. At the Humans to Mars Summit this week, agency and industry officials said the passage of a NASA authorization act earlier this year, which includes language supporting human missions to Mars as soon as 2033, give them confidence that NASA is on the right track. NASA Acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot said both the administration and Congress are "very supportive" of that goal, even though the current administration has not laid out details about its space policy. (5/11)

Masten Flight Demonstrator Damage in April Test at Mojave (Source: Parabolic Arc)
A small reusable launch vehicle technology demonstrator was damaged in a flight test last month. Masten Space Systems' Xaero-B vehicle was damaged in an April 19 test flight at the Mojave Air and Space Port, and the company has no current plans to repair it. The company said it is pending DARPA approval for a statement that provides details about the incident. Xaero-B, which, like the company's other vehicles takes off and lands vertically, has flown 75 times, primarily doing low-altitude flights to test various technologies. (5/11)

China Studying Asteroid Capture Mission (Source: South China Morning Post)
A Chinese scientist said this week that the government was studying a mission similar to NASA's Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM). Ye Peijian, chief commander and designer of China’s lunar exploration program, said the proposed mission would launch in the next decade to "capture" a near Earth asteroid and move it into orbit around the moon for scientific study or mining. It's unclear how seriously the Chinese government is considering this proposal. NASA's ARM called for collecting a small boulder off the surface of a near Earth asteroid that would be placed into lunar orbit to be visited by astronauts. ARM, however, is facing cancellation by the Trump administration. (5/11)

Chinese Spaceport Sparks Tourism Hopes (Source: LA Times)
A small Chinese town wants to cash in on a new spaceport. Haosheng is a town on the outskirts of the new Wenchang Satellite Launch Center on the island of Hainan. Local officials hope that the relative accessibility of the launch site, compared to existing Chinese spaceports in the country's interior, will turn the town into a tourist attraction. That development has been slow, though: a theme park about space, whose groundbreaking was in 2010, has yet to open, and a planned business district also has yet to take shape. (5/11)

Intelsat Extends Deadline for OneWeb Deal (Source: Space News)
Intelsat has again extended a deadline for a debt swap that is part of its deal to merge with OneWeb. Intelsat said Thursday that it has set a new deadline of Monday for bondholders to exchange debt. The company had originally set an April 20 deadline for the swap, then extended it to May 10 before this latest extension. The swap, designed to reduce the company's $15 billion in debt by $3.6 billion, is a condition for Japan's Softbank to invest $1.7 billion into the company and merge it with OneWeb. (5/11)

NASA Awards $100,000 in 3D-Printing Habitat Competition (Source:
The first printing segment of NASA's 3D-Printed Habitat Challenge is now complete, and the U.S. space agency has awarded $100,000 to the two winning teams. Based on a points system, the "Phase 2: Level 1 Compression Test Competition" winners are Foster + Partners | Branch Technology of Chattanooga, Tennessee (awarded $85,930), and the University of Alaska, Fairbanks (awarded $14,070), NASA officials said in a statement.

Through a partnership with both NASA's Centennial Challenges program and Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois, the 3D-Printed Habitat Challenge aims "to foster the development of technologies to manufacture a habitat using local indigenous materials with, or without, recyclable materials." (5/11)

Winning Plans for Cubesats to the Moon (Source: ESA)
If you could fly a CubeSat to the Moon, what could such a tiny satellite do there? ESA posed this question – and now four proposals will be studied in more detail for possible flight over the coming decade. These miniature missions variously involve probing lunar radiation, surveying the radio sky over the far side of the Moon, mapping minerals and frozen gases within shadowed craters, and detecting flashes from meteoroids striking the surface.

“Built around standard 10 cm units, CubeSats are already proving their worth near to Earth,” explains ESA’s Roger Walker. “We are now considering their uses further afield as part of future lunar exploration.” Four teams are now being funded until this autumn by ESA to develop their ideas. Click here. (5/11)

Earth's Forests Grew 9% in a New Satellite Survey (Source: Science)
The Age of Exploration may be long past, but even in the 21st century, our maps can still get a major update. Using satellite imagery, a new study has found hidden forests all over the world—almost enough for a second Amazon—in areas with little moisture known as drylands. Past estimates of how much of the world’s drylands are covered in forests have run into lots of problems: For instance, the satellite images used to measure them are often so low-resolution that it’s hard to figure out the difference between a tree, a shadow, or even a patch of dirt.

To correct for that, an international team of researchers performed the first global study using a new set of ultra–high-resolution Google Earth images—in which each pixel represents a patch of ground less than a meter wide, as opposed to tens of meters. Hundreds of scientists and students then combed through 210,000 images and found that the world’s drylands host 40% more forests than thought, the team writes today in Science. That’s more than a 9% bump in total global forest coverage, or two-thirds the size of the Amazon. (5/12)

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