Showing posts from September, 2014

Trade You a Dragon? NASA's Private Crew Capsules Now Collectible Cards

NASA's newly-drafted picks for its private spacecraft team now have their own rookie cards.

The agency this week debuted "collectible cards" featuring the space capsules it chose on Sept. 16 to fly astronauts to and from the International Space Station.

"We have quick-reference collectible cards with highlights of Boeing's CST-100, SpaceX's Crew Dragonand NASA's Commercial Crew Program that you can print and share with your friends," NASA's website promotes.

The three-card set, which the space agency is offering as free downloadable PDFs, include the "Launch America" art that was revealed during the announcement of $6.8 billion in awards to The Boeing Company and Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) to certify their capsules for crewed flights to the space station.

"Our goal is to complete certification of the [commercial] crew transportation systems in 2017," NASA's site reads, "including a test flight to th…

Countdown to Mars: Nasa starts final assembly of huge rockets to test spacecraft it hopes will take man to the red planet

Three Delta IV boosters collectively generate 1.96 million pounds of thrustOrion capsule will undergo first test flight in DecemberComes as Nasa bosses reveal private contracts for shuttle replacement so they can concentrate on the project Blastoff for the spacecraft which could one day take humans to Mars is set for the final countdown as Nasa begins assembling the giant rockets that will propel it into orbit.

The huge Delta IV Heavy rocket has been put together for the first time at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida ahead of a first test flight of the Orion capsule in December.

It will blast the experimental capsule in orbit - although the rockets are then expected to be replaced by Nasa's even bigger Space Launch system.

The three primary core elements of the United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta IV Heavy rocket have now been put together, forming the first stage of the launch vehicle that will send Orion far from Earth to allow NASA to evaluate the spacecraft's …

NASA: Newly studied exo-planet will help the search for alien life

A recently studied distant planet is helping NASA researchers perfect a method of examining distant atmospheres for signs of life. The reason this planet is so helpful? It's got great weather.

The so-called exo-planet, named HAT-P-11b, "appears to have clear skies," said Heather Knutson, a California Institute of Technology researcher involved in this study.

Clear skies allow an unobstructed view of what's creating a planet's atmosphere, she said. Clouds would block scientists from seeing what's there.

"We had a string of bad luck with the first set of planets that we looked at," she explained.

Those planets were all like San Francisco or Seattle: often cloudy. "So finding one that has clear skies is very exciting," she said.

Only about 1 in 5 planets examined were cloud free.

Using the Hubble telescope, Knutson and her team watched HAT-P-11b while it was backlit by its sun.

They scanned the halo created by the planet's atmosph…

What SpaceX’s New Spaceport Will Look Like

Less than a week after NASA announced that SpaceX will become one of two private companies to fly astronauts to the International Space Station, the company broke ground on a brand new spaceport of its own on Monday.

The spaceport, known at least for now as the SpaceX Commercial Launch Facility, will be located in Brownsville, Texas near Boca Chica Beach, about three miles from the Mexican border. The site will host launch complex and control center capable of handling a dozen commercial satellite launches per year.

Texas is already home to SpaceX’s rocket test and development center, located in McGregor. SpaceX flights to the space station will continue to launch from Florida, and that goes for the manned missions to the International Space Station expected to begin in 2017.

To clear the way for the new spaceport's construction, Texas passed legislation securing continued public access to Boca Chica Beach. But don’t expect to get an up-close seaside view of Falcon 9 rocket…

Explainer: why is everyone vying for a piece of Mars?

The red planet is about to welcome a new visitor: India’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) started orbiting Mars on September 24. But MOM is not the only new kid in town. The American MAVEN explorer arrived at the planet on September 21.

This means there are currently six operational spacecrafts orbiting Mars and two rovers on its surface. China, Japan, Russia, the US and Europe have all tried to send missions to Mars before India. What is it about our rocky neighbour that makes it such a focus of interest?

The past 25 years have seen an enormous increase in our understanding of Mars, based on the results from space missions both in orbit around the planet and on the rocky surface. All but one of the missions has been led by the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). The exception is the Mars Express orbiter managed by the European Space Agency (ESA).

All of the spacecraft have returned spectacular images of volcanoes, dried river valleys and deep chasms – more extreme…

Musk: SpaceX Texas launch site could begin mission to Mars

"Next stop, Mars."

That could be boarding call some day from the SpaceX launch facility near Brownsville where SpaceX CEO Elon Musk and Texas Gov. Rick Perry helped break ground on Monday. Rocket launches could begin from the private commercial launch site in 2016.

Musk said the site could be used someday to help put the first human visitors on Mars, the Texas Tribune reported.

"It very well could be the first person to go to another planet could launch from this location," the Tribune quoted Musk. "This is really going to be a new kind of spaceport that is optimized for commercial operations. Cape Canaveral and Cape Vandenberg are great launch sites, but they are military launch sites. ... What's important for the future of space exploration is to have a truly commercial launch site, just as we have commercial airports.

Musk previously said his personal goal is land humans on the Red Planet and that the survival of humanity is dependant on it becoming…

MIT’s futuristic spacesuit works like shrink wrap

What if astronauts squeezed into lightweight, stretchy suits before venturing into space? MIT researchers are proposing just that.

The theoretical suits would be made from coils that spring back to a "remembered" shape when heated -- so they could stretch out enough for astronauts to slip them on, but then contract into a suit tight enough to keep them alive in space.

“With conventional spacesuits, you’re essentially in a balloon of gas that’s providing you with the necessary one-third of an atmosphere [of pressure,] to keep you alive in the vacuum of space,” Dava Newman, a professor of astronautics at MIT and head of the suit's design team, said in a statement. “We want to achieve that same pressurization, but through mechanical counterpressure — applying the pressure directly to the skin, thus avoiding the gas pressure altogether."

For now, the suit is just a cuff -- a tourniquet that hangs loose, but tightens around the arm when exposed to a certain temperat…

Jeff Bezos isn’t the only one who says he can end U.S. reliance on a Russian-made engine

Jeff Bezos isn't the only one who says he can end U.S. reliance on the Russian-made rocket engine. On Tuesday, Alliant Techsystems said it is offering the Air Force an affordable solid propulsion rocket motor that will be available within three years.

As tensions between Russia and the U.S. have risen over the crisis in the Ukraine, members of Congress urged the Pentagon to develop an alternative to the Russian-made RD-180 engine, which is used to launch defense satellites into space. The United Launch Alliance, the joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin which has a virtual monopoly on those sensitive contracts, announced last week that it would invest in Bezo's Blue Origin space startup to develop a replacement to the RD-180, which is used in ULA's Atlas V rockets. (Bezos bought the Washington Post last year.)

The BE-4, as the Blue Origin engine is known, would be developed in about four years, officials said.

But Kent Romminger, ATK's vice president of …

SpaceX breaks ground on Texas rocket launch site

BROWNSVILLE, Texas (AP) — The commercial rocket launches that could begin as early as 2016 in the southernmost tip of Texas will be a critical step toward one day establishing a human presence on Mars, SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk said Monday.

With waves from the Gulf of Mexico crashing just over the dunes and crabs skittering around a tent erected for the groundbreaking, Musk said he expects SpaceX to invest $100 million in the world's first commercial orbital spaceport during the next three to four years.

The commercial satellite launch revenue Musk anticipates generating at the Boca Chica Beach site east of Brownsville will fuel California-based SpaceX's real objective. "The long-term goal is to create technology necessary to take humanity beyond Earth," Musk said. "To take humanity to Mars and establish a base on Mars. So it could very well be that the first person that departs for another planet will depart from this location."

Beginning as ear…

NASA move could transform space exploration

Today's selection of Boeing and SpaceX as the providers of a U.S.-based capability to take humans to the International Space Station (ISS) is a major milestone in the almost six-decade history of space exploration. It is just the latest sign that the old paradigm of government-only space travel is being replaced by something else -- a new business ecosystem composed of novel relationships among NASA and the aerospace industry.

No longer will NASA own the ISS "trucking company" -- specifying every nut and bolt. Instead, NASA is buying services from U.S. industry. To be sure, the new announcement made it clear that NASA will be carefully examining the safety aspects of each design. But the designs will still be those of Boeing and SpaceX and vetted by NASA.

I believe this new approach is America's "secret weapon" in what some have described as a space race with China. And, as far as I can tell, while the rest of the world is still stuck in a nearly governme…

Jeff Bezos is taking on SpaceX with a new rocket engine. How does it stack up?

You might not have realized, but Jeff Bezos has a rocket engine. Several, in fact. And on Wednesday, the Amazon chief executive (and Washington Post owner) unveiled the latest design — the Blue Engine 4, or what Bezos hopes will carry U.S. payloads into space in the near future.

The Blue Engine 4 — or BE4 — is named for Bezos's space exploration company, Blue Origin. The BE4 can produce 550,000 pounds of thrust and is propelled by a mix of liquefied natural gas and oxygen. The fuels are pressurized by a single turboprop before being burned, which scientists say may make it more efficient than using a two-prop system.

"It's time for a 21st-century booster engine," Bezos told reporters during an announcement at the National Press Club. "The engines built in the '50s, '60s, and '70s are remarkable pieces of hardware. But we have tools and capabilities — software simulations, computational horsepower — that the builders of those engines could only dre…

Musk Seeks Mars Mission After NASA Picks SpaceX-Boeing

With one small step yesterday, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration took a giant leap toward realizing a manned mission to Mars.

The agency awarded Boeing Co. and Elon Musk's Space Exploration Technologies Corp. as much as $6.8 billion to ferry astronauts to the International Space Station, resuming U.S. manned space flight. Since NASA retired the space shuttle fleet in 2011, U.S. astronauts have relied on Russian rockets to reach orbit.

The landmark announcement was the first time the U.S. has handed responsibility to commercial ventures for flying humans into space, furthering efforts to take tourists beyond the Earth's atmosphere. While NASA has a half-century of partnership with Boeing, SpaceX brings a vocal champion of aggressive exploration of other worlds.

"SpaceX is the new kid on the block, but it's proven its capabilities very quickly," said Marco Caceres, director of space studies with Teal Group, a Fairfax, Virginia-based consultant. &…

Five takeaways from NASA’s commercial crew decision

NASA has chosen the companies that will return to America the capability to fly its astronauts to space. The space agency announced Tuesday it will award $4.2 billion to Boeing, and $2.6 billion to SpaceX to complete development of their spacecraft, and begin flying as soon as 2017.

In choosing Boeing, NASA has a trusted partner with whom it has done business for 50 years.

Beginning with Project Mercury, America’s first manned orbital spacecraft, Boeing has served as lead contractor in most of NASA’s human spaceflight endeavors. Today it has the contract to sustain the International Space Station and is building NASA’s next rocket, the large Space Launch System.

In choosing SpaceX, NASA has opted for an innovative company that represents the new space industry, a new generation of companies outside its traditional sphere of contractors.

Here are some important take-aways:

1.NASA and Charlie Bolden are big winners today. The space agency fought for the program and as recently as 2…

3 Things to Know About NASA’s New Private Space Contracts

Private companies to carry NASA astronauts to the International Space Station on new spaceships by 2017. In a press conference held at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Tuesday, NASA officials announced that that space agency has awarded a pair of contracts to build commercial spaceships that will send astronauts to the International Space Station. Boeing and SpaceX stand to be awarded a total of $6.8 billion to build spaceships capable of carrying at least four crewmembers at a time. They are scheduled to begin ferrying astronauts to the space station by 2017.

In May, SpaceX unveiled the design of its Dragon Version 2, the manned version of the cargo ship that it uses to send supplies to the International Space Station. Boeing recently completed critical design and spacecraft safety reviews of its Crew Space Transportation (CST)-100 spacecraft. Here are a few things to know about the spacecraft, their makers, and those big NASA contracts.
Playing Politics NASA has relied on …

Boeing and SpaceX Selected to Build America’s New Crew Space Transportation System

The CST-100 and Dragon version 2 have been tapped by NASA to carry astronauts to the International Space Station on missions that will herald a new era in space transportation driven by private companies who also will be able to market their launch services to people around the world.

NASA selected Boeing and SpaceX to build their spacecraft during the final phase of a crew transportation development effort that began in 2010. The agency’s Commercial Crew Program will advise the companies as they advance from design to flight test vehicle to operational spacecraft, along with all the associated ground support, and launch and recovery systems.

Previous phases saw the completion of the design work up to the point when components, systems and subsystems could be manufactured, along with flight-worthy pressure vessels. The earlier work, some of which is still under way, included complex tests of thrusters, launch abort system elements, software, parachutes and control systems. More te…

SpaceX wants to build cities on Mars

Elon Musk, CEO and co-founder of SpaceX, not only wants to send astronauts to Mars, he wants to build a city there.

SpaceX is vying with Boeing Co. for a $3 billion project that would have astronauts in spacecraft launching from U.S. soil again. Since the U.S. retired its fleet of space shuttles in 2011, NASA has been dependent on Russia to ferry its astronauts back and forth to the International Space Station.

That arrangement has proved to be increasingly sticky given the increased tensions between the two countries since Russia has aggressively moved to annex Ukraine.

NASA executives hope to have the spacecraft and launching capabilities to send humans into orbit by 2017.

SpaceX, one of two private companies ferrying supplies, food and scientific experiments to the space shuttle, wants to be the company ferrying humans as well.

And in a press conference last week, Musk reportedly reiterated that he wants to populate Mars and he wants SpaceX to be the company at the core of tha…

How the World Will Actually End

There’s no denying we have a cultural obsession with the end days—we dedicate countless hours of creative energy envisioning the destruction of the world. But let’s imagine, for once, that humans manage to survive the zombie apocalypse or the spread of a super virus or catastrophic climate change without wiping out the planet's biodiversity. What would the End look like if we don't cause it?

Science, it so happens, leaves little room for imagination. Most of us know that billions of years from now, our little blue planet is going to go up in flames, when our dying sun splatters fiery bursts of plasma all over the solar system. But this dramatic finale is really just life’s epilogue. Well before the sun scorches its surface, life on Earth will have slowly slipped away, over the course of several billion years.

“The end of life on Earth will look a lot like early evolution of our planet, but in reverse,” said Jack O’Malley-James, a recent graduate of the University of St. Andr…

NASA Unveils World's Largest Spacecraft Welding Tool for Space Launch System

The largest spacecraft welding tool in the world, the Vertical Assembly Center officially is open for business at NASA's Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans. The 170-foot-tall, 78-foot-wide giant completes a world-class welding toolkit that will be used to build the core stage of America's next great rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS).

SLS will be the most powerful rocket ever built for deep space missions, including to an asteroid and eventually Mars. The core stage, towering more than 200 feet tall (61 meters) with a diameter of 27.6 feet (8.4 meters), will store cryogenic liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen that will feed the rocket's four RS-25 engines.

"This rocket is a game changer in terms of deep space exploration and will launch NASA astronauts to investigate asteroids and explore the surface of Mars while opening new possibilities for science missions, as well,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden during a ribbon-cutting ceremony at Michoud Frid…

Discovery! First Water Ice Clouds Found Beyond Our Solar System

For the first time, astronomers have detected water ice clouds, like the ones that shroud Earth, around a dim celestial body outside of our solar system.

Scientists discovered evidence of the alien water ice clouds in infrared images of a newly discovered brown dwarf that's as cold as the North Pole.

"Ice clouds are predicted to be very important in the atmospheres of planets beyond our solar system, but they've never been observed outside of it before now," study leader Jacqueline Faherty, who is a fellow at the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington, D.C., said in a statement.

Ice water has been found around gas giants in our solar system. NASA's Cassini spacecraft recently detected water ice crystals on Saturn that had been churned up from deep inside the ringed planet's thick atmosphere during a huge storm. Water ice clouds are also hidden underneath Jupiter's stormy ammonia ice clouds.

Now, scientists found faint signatures of such clouds…

Water-splitter could make hydrogen fuel on Mars

Making fuel on site for a return trip to Mars may be a step closer. A cunning way to split water into oxygen and hydrogen in two distinct steps could be a boon to both astronauts and future Earthlings, enabling them to use renewable energy sources for making hydrogen fuel.

Hydrogen fuel cells can power vehicles ranging from cars to submarines and rockets. They can also heat buildings, and double as portable power-packs for computers or other kit used in the field. But existing methods for creating usable hydrogen gas from water require a lot of electricity. That means renewable energy sources like wind or sunlight, which are often patchy, are not reliable enough.

It can also be hazardous to scale up "artificial leaves", which lmake fuel from sunlight, just like plants, says Lee Cronin at the University of Glasgow, UK. This is because the low powers available don't produce the gases quickly enough to keep them apart once they form. "All they do is build up oxygen …

Crops Grow On Fake Moon And Mars Soil

That means future space colonizers may be able to farm their own food using local dirt. If humans ever set up permanent bases on the Moon or Mars, we'll need to be able to grow our own food there. To find out whether that’s actually possible, a team of scientists in the Netherlands planted 14 plant species in soils that simulate the Martian and lunar regolith. It turned out that the Martian soil simulant was better than some Earth soils for growing plant life, which is good news for astronauts. There are a few caveats, but we’ll get to those later.

First, you’re probably wondering what the heck is a soil simulant, and where does it come from? NASA makes them out of our very own terra firma, and you can buy your own here. (Cost: $7.50 for 2 ounces.) The Mars simulant (PDF) comes from a volcanic cone in Hawaii, and has a chemical composition similar to the Mars dirt that the Viking 1 lander analyzed. The Moon simulant (PDF) comes from volcanic ash deposits near Flagstaff, Arizona.…

Is asteroid mining legal? Congress wants to make it so.

A few different companies have recently announced grand plans to mine asteroids for precious metals and other materials.

But in addition to all the technological hurdles that would need to be cleared to make this possible, there's an obstacle of a much different sort: the law.

The Outer Space Treaty of 1967 — a UN treaty signed by 102 countries, including the US — bans countries from appropriating any astronomical bodies. But there's a dispute over whether this would apply to private companies mining asteroids.

Congress seems to be arguing that it does not. On Wednesday, a House subcommittee discussed a new law that would explicitly give companies ownership over any materials they extract from an asteroid.

Still, experts disagree over whether this would be compatible with international law — and whether it'd actually legalize asteroid mining. Here's a breakdown of the issue.
What existing law says about asteroid mining

The Outer Space Treaty of 1967 is the founda…

Musk’s SpaceX Vies With Boeing as NASA’s Taxi to Space Station

Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Boeing Co. (BA) are contending for more than $3 billion in funding to resume U.S. manned spaceflight with the first commercial venture to fly humans into orbit.

The contract to ferry astronauts to the International Space Station by 2017 in so-called space taxis would end U.S. reliance on Russian rockets since the space shuttle was retired three years ago. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration set a deadline to announce the award this month.

For Musk, winning would be a pivotal step toward his dream of colonizing Mars, while a Boeing victory would extend its half-century history with the U.S. space program. A third rival, Sierra Nevada Corp., offers a winged, shuttle-type vehicle as it seeks to expand beyond supplying rockets for sub-orbital tourist trips on Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic.

“Boeing is the safe choice, SpaceX is the exciting choice and Sierra Nevada the interesting choice,” Loren Thompson, an analyst with Lexington Institute,…