May 9, 2017

Air Force Wants to Remind You (and China) That its Secret Space Drone is Back (Source: Quartz)
One of the weirdest open secrets in space has come back to earth: The X-37B, an experimental US Air Force drone that looks and flies like a miniature Space Shuttle, landed at Kennedy Space Center on May 7 with a sonic boom that surprised local residents. The autonomous craft spent 718 days in space.

Unlike its previous three trips, when the Air Force provided few details about its mission, this time military spokespeople can point to two totally not nefarious at all science projects. While more speculative analysts suspect electronic espionage directed at Chinese spacecraft, the US Air Force says this is just a run-of-the-mill experimental craft designed to demonstrate reusable space technology can survive radiation, volatile temperatures and micro-asteroids.

This flight featured the test of an advanced US Air Force engine, designed to propel spacecraft using thrusters powered by electrically charged particles, as well as a NASA experiment to evaluate how dozens of different materials withstand long-term exposure to space. (5/8)

Eight Incredible Feats SpaceX Will Attempt in the Pursuit of Mars (Source: Observer)
SpaceX has had a singular vision since its founding: to make humans a multi-planetary species. That means financing and building the infrastructure that will transport settlers to the first stop: Mars.

SpaceX was the first private company to dock a spacecraft at the International Space Station, the first to successfully recover an orbital-class rocket after a mission. And recently, they shook the entire aerospace industry by reflying one of those rockets—an accomplishment that has far-reaching implications for the future of spaceflight. Click here. (5/8) 

Planetary Protection: Contamination Debate Still Simmers (Source:
On Sept. 15, 2017, NASA's Cassini spacecraft will take a suicide plunge into Saturn to avoid contaminating the ringed planet's potentially habitable moons, Titan and Enceladus. Cassini's fate is tied to the issue of planetary protection, which refers to the measures scientists and engineers take to minimize that chances that life-forms from Earth make it to other worlds. And with NASA's Mars 2020 rover planning to cache samples to one day return to Earth's labs, planetary protection also means making sure that our own world is safe from contamination by possible alien life. (5/9)

Here’s How Much It Would Cost to Travel to Mars (Source: Money)
It’s being billed as the largest event ever dedicated to human exploration to Mars: From May 9 to 11, leading scientists and engineers will gather in Washington for the Humans to Mars Summit. Among the headline speakers will be Buzz Aldrin,William H. Gerstenmaier , associate administrator for the Human Exploration and Operations Directorate at NASA; and Pascal Lee, the director of the Mars Institute, an international non-profit research organization partially funded by NASA. Click here. (5/8)

First Latina In Space To Be Inducted Into US Astronaut Hall of Fame (Source: KPBS)
When Ellen Ochoa was growing up in La Mesa in the 60’s, a career in space exploration did not cross her mind. “At that time there weren’t women astronauts, they weren’t allowed to apply. And actually you saw very few women at all working at NASA. So, it’s something that at that time I never thought about growing up and doing,” she said. It was not until she was in graduate school that her interest in joining NASA’s astronaut program grew.

In 1993, Ochoa became the first Latina to travel to space. She was part of a 90-day space mission to study the Earth’s atmosphere aboard the space shuttle Discovery. As an astronaut, Ochoa has flown on four space missions, logging almost 1,000 hours in orbit. This month, Ochoa will be inducted into the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame. (5/8)

Minor Planet Named After Chinese Aerospace Scientist (Source: Xinhua)
Minor Planet No. 456677 was named after Chinese aerospace scientist Ye Peijian at a ceremony on Monday. Ye is active in the country's lunar probe and deep space missions, and an academician of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. The minor planet was discovered by a Chinese team at the Purple Mountain Observatory in east China's Nanjing on Sept. 11, 2007. (5/8)

Why Comets Have Oxygen Atmospheres (Source: Cosmos)
Why would a comet have oxygen in its atmosphere? That’s the question that has been troubling scientists since the European Space Agency’s Rosetta spacecraft visited the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in 2015, and made the surprising discovery that the comet’s wispy-thin atmosphere did indeed contain molecular oxygen.

Molecular oxygen, otherwise known as the common gas O2 where on Earth, where it is a byproduct of life, is rare in space: oxygen atoms are more likely to bond with hydrogen (to form water, H2O) or carbon (to form carbon dioxide, CO2). The presence of O2 on the comet has been something of a mystery, but an answer has come from a surprising source. Konstantinos P. Giapis is a professor of chemical engineering at Caltech, whose work on collisions of high-speed ions with semiconductor surfaces has in the past been applied mainly in computer chip manufacture.

“What I’ve been studying for years is happening right here on this comet,” Giapis says. If water molecules flew off the comet under heating by the sun, the molecules could be ionized (split into their component atoms) by the solar radiation, which would also push them back toward the comet’s surface. At the surface, the loose oxygen atoms could meet and bond with oxygen atoms contained in materials such as rust and sand, forming O2. (5/9)

Space: The Final(?) Frontier of Taxation (Source: Conservative Review)
In its continuing quest to become a caricature of itself, California is announcing plans for a new tax policy targeting space travel. Commercial spaceflight companies based in the state will be expected to pay a fee to the government for every mile traveled.

If this sounds silly, it’s because it is. Commercial space travel is likely to become a major industry over the next several decades, and I guess California wants to get in early to claim a piece of the pie, but it’s a completely wrong-headed move on a number of levels.

The tax will not only apply to space tourism, but to cargo as well. The idea of commerce in space may seem like science fiction, but it is not at all unrealistic to assume that transporting goods to space could become a major industry, especially given that the international space station already requires regular deliveries. California is trying to spin the tax as “actively engaging” with industry. I guess that’s one way of putting it, if your definition of “actively engaging” includes “chasing away.” (5/8)

Cold Surface, Hot Market: Commercial Lunar Gains Traction (Source: Space Angels)
For anyone with their finger on the pulse of the entrepreneurial space race, it should come as no surprise that the Moon is becoming prime real estate these days. As interest and investment in commercial space heats up, and as government agencies and commercial companies alike focus their attention beyond low-Earth orbit,competition between multiple private companies looking to provide access to the moon is creating a market for commercial lunar services. Click here. (5/8)

The Scientific Truth About Planet Nine, So Far (Source: Forbes)
Last year, two astronomers were looking at the most distant objects orbiting our Sun ever discovered, when they noticed something funny. These ultra-distant Kuiper belt objects, instead of having their orbits oriented at random, were both swept off in one particular direction and tilted in the same direction. If you only had one or two objects doing this, you might chalk it up to random chance, but we had six; the odds that this would be random was around 0.0001%.

Instead, astronomers Konstantin Batygin and Mike Brown proposed a radical new theory: that there was an ultra-distant ninth planet — more massive than Earth but smaller than Uranus/Neptune — knocking these objects into their new orbits. 16 months later, here's the scientific truth, so far. Click here. (5/9)

Senate Confirms USAF Secretary (Source: Space News)
The Senate has confirmed Heather Wilson as the next secretary of the Air Force. The vote, 76–22, fell largely on party lines with some moderate Democrats joining Republicans to confirm her nomination. While the previous Air Force secretary, Deborah Lee James, served as principal Defense Department space adviser, or PDSA, it's unclear if Wilson will also take on that role given the possibility of a reorganization in military space policy. If not, Wilson is expected to have a seat on the National Space Council, expected to be formally reestablished in the near future. (5/9)

Space Launch System (SLS) Upper Stage Testing Begins (Source: SpaceFlight Insider)
A series of structural qualification tests on the Space Launch System (SLS) Integrated Spacecraft and Payload Element (ISPE) – a test version of the SLS upper / “in-space” section – is underway at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC). The tests began on Feb. 22 and are expected to be completed by mid-May. The ISPE is composed of an SLS core stage simulator, a launch vehicle stage adapter (LVSA), a test version of the interim cryogenic propulsion stage (ICPS), the structural portion of a frangible joint assembly, the Orion stage adapter, and the Orion spacecraft simulator. (5/9)

What To Do with NASA's Defective SLS Fuel Tanks? (Source:
NASA is pondering what to do with fuel tanks built for the Space Launch System that may have defective welds. Engineers discovered an issue with the friction stir welding system used to make the SLS propellant tanks at the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans and corrected it while making liquid oxygen tanks. The problem, though, was found after the system was used to weld two liquid hydrogen tanks, including one planned for the first SLS launch. Given concerns that the welds may be below their rated strength, NASA is evaluating options to either repair the welds or produce a new tank. (5/9)

Italian Small Rocket Maker Raises Cash in Stock Offering (Source: Space News)
Italian launch vehicle company Avio is considering what to do with the money raised in a stock offering. The company, which produces the Vega small launch vehicle for Arianespace, started trading on the Italian stock exchange last month in a public offering that raised nearly $66 million. The company hasn't disclosed the plans for the money, but says by being publicly traded it's better able to raise money in the future to meet growing demand for the Vega. (5/9)

Another Pluto Orbiter in Planning (Source:
Scientists are starting planning for a Pluto orbiter mission. A meeting in late April discussed science goals for an orbiter mission that would follow up on the New Horizons flyby mission in 2015. The concept would involve a launch no earlier than the late 2020s, arriving at Pluto seven to eight years later for a mission there lasting four to five years. The team is working to mature the concept to win support for it in the next planetary science decadal survey in the early 2020s. (5/9)

Space Radiation Reproduced in the Lab for Better, Safer Missions (Source: Space Daily)
Man-made space radiation has been produced in research led by the University of Strathclyde, which could help to make space exploration safer, more reliable and more extensive. Researchers used novel laser-plasma-based accelerators to mimic the radiation, which presents a risk to astronauts and space technology owing to the lack of protection from it in space. The study, funded by the European Space Agency (ESA), shows for the first time that this type of device can be used for realistic space radiation reproduction and testing on Earth. (5/9)

It’s Time for the US Air Force to Prepare for Preemption in Space (Source: Space Review)
Space is increasing being seen as a potential place of conflict should hostilities break out on Earth. Edward G. Ferguson and John J. Klein argue that, in that light, it’s time for the US think about preempting hostile actions in space rather than responding to an attack. Click here. (5/8)
Revisiting America’s Future in Civil Space (Source: Space Review)
The National Academies hosted a symposium last week to revisit a report from 2009 about the future of the nation’s civil space efforts. Jeff Foust reports on what attendees thought had changed, and what had stayed the same. Click here. (5/8)
Orbital ATK Seeks a Starring Role in Military Space Launches (Source: Space Review)
Last month, Orbital ATK released new details about its planned EELV-class launch vehicle it proposes to develop, pending the award of Air Force contracts. Jeffrey Smith examines how the technical choices the company is making in its design could set it apart from competitors. Click here. (5/8)
Serendipity in the Space Program: TDRS-1, GEODSS, and One Amazing Phone Call (Source: Space Review)
The launch of the first data relay satellite from the shuttle, more than 30 years ago, didn’t go as planned. Joseph T. Page II describes how, in the end, things turned out better than one might have ever expected. Click here. (5/8)
India Launches a South Asia Satellite (Source: Space Review)
Last week, India launched a communications satellite that the country offered as a “gift” to neighboring countries. Ajey Lele examines the significance of that project to building better relations, in space and on the Earth. Click here. (5/8) 

Trump’s Staffing Pace Slowing Gov’t Contracts, Says Leidos (Source: Law360)
The slow rate of political appointments by Donald Trump has stunted the procurement process, according to Thursday’s first-quarter earnings call for defense contractor Leidos Holdings Inc., but the IT company’s CEO also said the passage of the 2017 fiscal budget and Trump’s defense priorities bode well for the company. (5/8)

JWST Telescope Makes Next Stop in Testing Tour (Source: NASA)
The James Webb Space Telescope has arrived at NASA's Johnson Space Center for its next round of testing. NASA said late Sunday that the telescope assembly had been shipped from the Goddard Space Flight Center to JSC, using a C-5 cargo plane that flew from Joint Base Andrews to Ellington Field in Houston. At JSC, the JWST telescope assembly will undergo a series of thermal vacuum tests slated to run for 100 days. (5/8)

Next-Up for NASA's Big Science Missions, WFIRST (Source: Space News)
NASA will hold off on reviews of the next flagship astronomy mission after JWST to conduct an independent study. NASA recently announced it was establishing an independent panel to review work on the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST), which is in its early phases of development. The panel was recommended last year by the National Academies midterm review of the astrophysics decadal survey, which made WFIRST its top priority flagship mission. NASA will postpone upcoming project reviews, including a decision to move to Phase B of development, until any recommendations made by that review can be implemented. (5/8)

Next-Up for NASA's Medium Science Missions... (Source: NASA)
NASA received a dozen proposals for its next New Frontiers planetary science mission. The proposals, due to NASA late last month, are for missions that fit six themes, from a lunar sample return to missions to Saturn and its potentially habitable moons Enceladus and Titan. NASA expects to select several proposals for Phase A studies later this year, and select one mission in 2019 for launch in the mid-2020s. New Frontiers is a program for medium-sized planetary missions, and includes New Horizons, Juno and OSIRIS-REx. (5/8)

ZERO-G Offers Flight With Shatner (Source:
You, too, can float in weightlessness with Captain Kirk, for a price. Actor William Shatner will fly on a Zero-G Corporation aircraft in August, flying parabolic arcs that provide brief periods of weightlessness. Tickets for the flight will cost nearly $10,000 a person, double the usual rate. "I've always wondered what it would be like to actually explore the final frontier, and now I have the opportunity to experience zero gravity firsthand," Shatner, who previously denied reports he was interested in flying on a suborbital space tourism spacecraft, said in a statement. (5/8)

Georgia Governor Signs Spaceport Bill (Source: Atlanta Business Chronicle)
Gov. Nathan Deal signed legislation Monday aimed at making Georgia a player in the competition for commercial space business. The Georgia Space Flight Act, which the General Assembly passed overwhelmingly in March, will give operators of a planned commercial spaceport in Camden County, Ga., the same liability protections that already exist in states competing with Georgia to host commercial rocket launches. House Bill 1 sets a strict legal standard for a plaintiff, likely a space tourist, injured while riding in a spacecraft to collect damages in a lawsuit. (5/8)

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