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Showing posts from November, 2014

Firefly Space Systems charges full-speed toward low Earth orbit

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True believers build rockets, engines, and space dreams on the Texas prairie. CEDAR PARK, TEXAS—Former SpaceX engineer Tom Markusic has brought Firefly Space Systems to the outskirts of Austin to make rockets and chew bubblegum, and he’s all out of gum. Standing in the vast field on the outskirts of the Texas state capital watching Markusic flitting between clusters of workers welding together test stand equipment, it's easy to get caught up in the man’s vision of democratizing access to space—a vision of filling that vault of empty sky above our heads with countless twinkling lights.

That’s the genesis of the company name: Firefly Space Systems. It isn’t named after the TV show, as many people commonly assume. Rather, Markusic says the name came to him one evening while sitting on his back porch, watching fireflies dance in the air over his lawn. One day, he believes, that’s what the sky above Earth will look like—filled with spacecraft ferrying people to Mars, in a journey as …

Why we should mine the Moon

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To date, all human economic activity has depended on the material and energy resources of a single planet; understandably, perhaps. It is conceivable though that future advances in space exploration could change this by opening our closed planetary economy to essentially unlimited external resources of energy and raw materials.

Look up at the Moon this evening, and you might be gazing at a solution. The Earth’s closest celestial neighbour seems likely to play a major role and already a number of private companies have been created to explore the possibilities.

It is important to stress that even now, 40 years after the Apollo missions, we still don’t have a complete picture of the Moon’s economic potential, and obtaining one will require a more rigorous programme of lunar exploration than has been undertaken to-date. In part, this is why proposed future lunar exploration missions (such as the recently announced Lunar Mission One) are so important

Nevertheless, as a result of work …

History Made as 90,000 Earthlings Send Messages to Mars

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There’s really a more productive way to spend Black Friday instead of going berserk and storming the stores. A really huge crowd of 90,000 people capable of invading every bigger mall during the yesterday’s run-and-buy frenzy, has made history sending greetings to our reddish neighboring planet. “Today uwingu.com sent almost 90,000 messages to Mars—first time people’s names & messages sent to Mars by radio!” the Uwingu company which crowd funds space projects, said on Twitter. It was a global shout-out event to mark the 50th anniversary of NASA’s Mariner 4 - the first mission to Mars.

Mariner 4 was launched on Nov. 28, 1964 from Cape Canaveral, Florida. The spacecraft performed the first successful flyby of Mars. It returned 22 images of the planet's surface. Mariner 4 remained in solar orbit until contact was lost on Dec. 21, 1967 and is now derelict in an exterior heliocentric orbit.

50 years after the launch, Uwingu, a company founded by Alan Stern, a former NASA Associa…

3D printer activated aboard the International Space Station

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The dream of a self-sufficient space-faring civilization moved a step closer to reality this week as a commercial 3D printer was installed aboard the International Space Station for a tryout in orbit.

Astronaut Barry “Butch” Wilmore unpacked the 3D printer from its launch packaging and put it inside a safety housing in the space station’s Destiny laboratory module, according to Made in Space, Inc., the Silicon Valley startup which built the printer.

“This is a very exciting day for me and the rest of the team. We had to conquer many technical challenges to get the 3D printer to this stage,” said Mike Snyder, Made in Space’s director of research and development, in an update posted to the company’s website.

Developed in a public-private partnership between NASA and Made in Space, the 3D printer launched Sept. 21 on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. It arrived at the space station two days later aboard a Dragon supply ship.

“This experiment has been an advantageous first stepping stone to …

A New Dawn: The Troubled History and Future Promise of NASA's Orion Program (Part 1)

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For any astronomer, Orion is a relatively straightforward constellation to find in the night sky. Honoring the hunter of ancient Greek myth, its “belt” of three stars—the supergiants Alnitak, Alnilam, and Mintaka—are clearly visible to the naked eye, as is its approximate “rectangle” of Rigel, Betelgeuse, Bellatrix, and Saiph, particularly in the winter months in the Northern Hemisphere. For centuries, Orion’s stars have been used as navigational aids, guiding Earthly explorers to new lands and new vistas. And this winter, after more than a decade of planning, political frustrations, and cancellations, and with a still largely unshaped vision of its future, another Orion will embark on its first voyage into space. This mechanized Orion currently resides atop a mammoth Delta IV Heavy booster at Space Launch Complex (SLC)-37B at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., awaiting its date with destiny at 7:05 a.m. EST on Thursday, 4 December. When it launches, it will travel to an altitud…

TESS Exoplanet-Hunting Space Telescope Ready for Development

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The search for exoplanets is about to enter an exciting new phase, as the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) mission has now been cleared for development by NASA. TESS will greatly expand the number of stars being observed for evidence of exoplanets orbiting them, as the next step forward from the Kepler space telescope and others which have already found thousands of such worlds outside of our own Solar System.

“This is an incredibly exciting time for the search of planets outside our solar system,” said Mark Sistilli, the TESS program executive from NASA Headquarters, Washington. “We got the green light to start building what is going to be a spacecraft that could change what we think we know about exoplanets.”

TESS will scan the entire sky with four cameras in its search, in both hemispheres, rather than focus on one particular patch of sky like Kepler does. The preliminary mission will last for two years, followed by a third year where ground-based telescopes will con…

How NASA Could Help Humanity Make 'Interstellar' a Reality

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The space epic "Interstellar," out in theaters this weekend, presents a dire vision for the future of humanity. Climate change has ravaged Earth, leaving humans with a choice: Go extinct or pack up and find a new home.

Should we ever find ourselves facing a real-life "Interstellar" dilemma, NASA might be able to help. The space agency has several ongoing and planned missions to scan the cosmos for Earth-like plants beyond our solar system, as well as to figure out how people might survive on a hostile alien world.

Astronomers had long theorized that they would find planets around other stars beyond the sun. But the first exoplanet discoveries were only confirmed in the 1990s.

The 2009 launch of NASA's Kepler Space Telescope ushered in a boom of exoplanet discovery. Perched about 64 million miles (104 kilometers) above Earth, the telescope detected subtle changes in brightness as planets passed in front of their parent stars. Kepler proved that it's pos…

'Earth first' - an emotional argument lacking understanding of the facts

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Every year NASA spends an average of about $18 billion on its various activities. What has that purchased? How much of that comes out of the pockets of the U.S. taxpayer? The facts are surprising and the lack of gratitude and ignorance spread about NASA’s budget – is disappointing. This is made worse by the argument raised since the very beginning of the Space Age that we need to focus on Earthly concerns first. Anyone, with even the most basic understandings of human history knows that this argument is based off of emotion – and will only serve to injure humanity’s chances for long-term survival.

The International Space Station (ISS), to date has cost $150 billion, $50 billion of that was paid by American taxpayers since 1994. The total cost of the Space Shuttle Program: $200 billion, that includes the cost of the refurbishment of Launch Complexes A and B, astronaut training the facilities, expendables and infrastructure to operate the program. Each mission cost an estimated $450 mi…

Interstellar, Virgin Galactic and the Dream of Space

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There are moments in time when the coincidence of art and reality interact to allow us a glimpse into the context of history. The release of the Christopher Nolan film Interstellar a few days after two catastrophes in our space endeavor gives us one of those moments.

It began two weeks ago with the spectacular loss on launch of the Orbital Sciences Antares rocket, a NASA-funded yet commercially operated supply flight to the International Space Station that was also jam-packed with student and science experiments and a collection of various innovative new commercial nano-satellites crammed into its nooks and crannies.

It was followed last Friday by the devastating crash of the SpaceShip Two test vehicle, and the loss of life of one of her crew. In this case, not only was a highly important symbol of a new age of space access destroyed, but one of the new heroes of the space age lost his life.

On hour later I climbed off a plane to give that afternoon's keynote at the Students f…

Daring Orion Spaceship Test Flight Is NASA's 1st Step Toward Mars

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NASA is getting ready to launch a daring test flight of a capsule that could eventually bring humans to deep-space destinations like Mars or an asteroid.

On Dec. 4, NASA officials are expected to launch the Orion spacecraft on its first test flight, putting the capsule through its paces in space before it splashes down in the Pacific Ocean. The goal of the flight is to see how some key Orion systems — like its huge heat shield and parachutes — work before launching humans into deep space sometime in the future.

The mission — called Exploration Flight Test 1 (EFT-1) — is currently scheduled to launch atop a United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. During the flight, Orion will make two orbits of Earth, with one of them taking the capsule 3,600 miles (5,793 kilometers) into space. (For reference, the International Space Station orbits about 248 miles (400 km) above Earth.)

"This is really our first step on our journey to Mars…

European Spacecraft Could Find 70,000 New Alien Worlds

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A European spacecraft that launched late last year could eventually discover 70,000 exoplanets, helping researchers better understand the number and characteristics of alien worlds throughout the galaxy, a new study reports.

The European Space Agency's star-monitoring Gaia mission, which launched in December 2013, should find about 21,000 alien planets over the course of its five-year mission and perhaps 70,000 distant worlds if it keeps operating for 10 years, the study found.

"It’s not just about the numbers. Each of these planets will be conveying some very specific details, and many will be highly interesting in their own way," lead author Michael Perryman of Princeton University said in a statement. "If you look at the planets that have been discovered until now, they occupy very specific regions of discovery space. Gaia will not only discover a whole list of planets, but in an area that has not been thoroughly explored so far."

The first alien world a…

Will Interstellar inspire a new space race?

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Like Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Christopher Nolan’s epic unashamedly celebrates travelling to the stars as the next logical step in our evolution. Perhaps, after years of cynicism, we’re ready to be inspired by space exploration again

Stanley Kubrick was right about most things but when it came to 2001: A Space Odyssey, he got it hopelessly wrong. We’re now 13 years on from that particular date, so where’s our future? Instead of Pan Am flights to the moon we’ve got the faltering efforts of Virgin Galactic, which suffered another setback with the crash of its test plane last week. Instead of elegant space stations resembling modernist furniture showrooms, we have got the cramped tin cans of the International Space Station. And forget survey missions to Jupiter, Nasa doesn’t even have a space shuttle any more. As it is, we are not even on track for the dystopian future of Blade Runner, unless we can knock together some off-world colonies in the next five years. Charlton Heston’s …

New sci-fi film 'Interstellar' is a hit with Huntsville's real rocket scientists

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An audience of scientists, rocket engineers and aerospace executives left a 70-mm IMAX premiere of "Interstellar" at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center Monday night buzzing about the new film's stunning images of space and hoping it can inspire a new generation.

Comments like "that's my kind of movie" and "I loved it" were heard in the lobby afterward, and several who saw it were still talking about it a day later.

"Interstellar" is filmmaker Christopher Nolan's nearly 3-hour story of a space voyage to find a new home for humanity before the Earth collapses from overpopulation and extreme climate change.

"It was well-done, pretty realistic," Aerojet Rocketdyne executive Gene Goldman, the former head of NASA's Stennis Space Center and acting director of Marshall Space Flight Center, said today. He's seen space movies that made him want to throw something at the screen, but Goldman said, "This was not like t…

Christopher Nolan on Interstellar: 'We're going to leave this planet at some point'

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Christopher Nolan and members of his cast and filmmaking team gathered in Los Angeles recently to discuss Interstellar.

The director's new sci-fi epic opens on Friday everywhere (after a limited IMAX opening on Wednesday) and comes with some of the highest expectations of the year. Not only is it Nolan's first film since completing the Dark Knight trilogy, but it's perhaps the most ambitious of his career, even more so than his previous sci-fi blockbuster, Inception.

Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway star as the leaders of a space crew tasked with traveling through a wormhole that has mysteriously appeared near Saturn and find out what happened to 12 previous explorers who vanished through the object. Blight is slowly rendering Earth uninhabitable, and it's hoped that the wormhole is the gateway to another galaxy where a planet capable of supporting human life can be found.

But even if they succeed, the cost to the crew is unfathomable: Years and and perhaps ev…