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Showing posts from December, 2014

NASA's reborn Kepler mission makes first exoplanet discovery

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"Last summer, the possibility of a scientifically productive mission for Kepler after its reaction wheel failure in its extended mission was not part of the conversation," Paul Hertz said.

After a year on the proverbial bench, Kepler is back in the game seeking out alien worlds; and for the first time since it was sidelined, scientists confirmed a new exoplanet located by the probe.

In the spring of 2013, NASA's Kepler probe began spinning out of control after its wheeled image-stabilization mechanism broke. With only two of its four wheels in working condition, its mission was retired.

Without the ability to fix its gaze on specific points in space, Kepler was pretty useless as a recorder of optical data and searcher of exoplanets.

But earlier this year, engineers at NASA figured out a way to rig the probing observatory so that the pressure of the sun's rays pinned it into a stable position. After testing proved their troubleshooting had worked, NASA approved fu…

SyFy's 'Ascension' Takes 1960s Nuclear Spaceship Idea to the Stars

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A spaceship powered by nuclear bombs secretly launched in the 1960s. A colony ship on 100-year journey to spread humanity to the stars. These central themes of the SyFy Channel's epic "Ascension" miniseries this week sound like pure science fiction, U.S. scientists actually worked to build such a spaceship in the 1960s.

In "Ascension," a three-part SyFy miniseries that launches tonight (Dec. 15), 600 people live aboard an Orion-class nuclear spacecraft on a mission to Proxima Centauri. The mission launched in 1963, when the Space Race was in full swing and the Cold War made the threat of global nuclear war an uncomfortable possibility. This leads to Project Ascension, led by a Werner von Braun-esque Abraham Enzmann, who dreamed up a spaceship taller than the Empire State Building that is propelled by nuclear bombs.

There is certainly a lot going on in "Ascension" to grab the average space fan, not the least of which is the fact that the ship Ascens…

Do we really need to leave Earth?

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Just over 110 years ago, the Wright Brothers took flight for the first time. Just over 45 years ago, people walked on the moon. It took just over 60 years for us to go from the first powered flight to the first moon landing.

Back then the possibilities seemed endless. We ended up going to the moon just a handful of times before abandoning it. The space race ended when the Cold War ended.

Now the NASA budget is scrutinized by people looking for ways to cut it. Going into space is great, but what do we really learn by going there? It turns out that we can learn a lot by doing experiments in space. But does that knowledge have any practical application?

That’s the great thing about discovery. When Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin, he hadn’t set out to cure disease. New knowledge comes to us and we get to use imagination to put it to practical use later.

There is another reason for us to continue our space exploration. Earth is 4.5 billion years old. For most of that time it w…

SpaceX Will Try to Land Rocket on Floating Ocean Platform Next Week

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SpaceX will apparently attempt something truly epic during next week's cargo launch to the International Space Station.

During the Dec. 16 launch from Florida's Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, which will send SpaceX's robotic Dragon capsule toward the orbiting lab, the California-based company will try to bring the first stage of its Falcon 9 rocket back to Earth for a controlled landing on a floating platform in the Atlantic Ocean.

The bold maneuver marks a big step forward in SpaceX's development of reusable-rocket technology, which the company's billionaire founder, Elon Musk, says could eventually cut the cost of spaceflight by a factor of 100 and perhaps make Mars colonization economically feasible.

Musk shared photos of the Falcon 9 and landing platform via Twitter late last month, ratcheting up interest in the cargo mission, the fifth of 12 unmanned resupply flights SpaceX will make to the space station for NASA under a $1.6 billion contract.

"Au…

The hunt for alien Earths won't come to a dust-up

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In good news for people seeking Earth-like planets around Sun-like stars, a research study has concluded that, on average, there should not be too much dust in the way to block the view. Dust makes it difficult for telescopes to peer through the material to see planets, so this finding makes the search for an Earth 2.0 all the more encouraging.

Imaging planets is still at a young phase—for now, it is huge gas giants close to Earth that are most easily picked up by cameras—but as more sensitive telescopes make it to orbit in the coming decades, the finding is expected to be encouraging news for these telescopic astrophotographers.

According to NASA, researchers are already thinking about how to capture these small-planet portraits. Instrument designs are in the works, and analyses are already going on of dust surrounding a number of stars to see how these particles would interfere with optical systems.

"Dust is a double-edged sword when it comes to imaging distant planets,&q…

3-D Printer on Space Station Makes Its First Part

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The international space station’s 3-D printer has produced its first part, ushering in what proponents hope will be a new age of off-Earth manufacturing.

The 3-D printer, which was designed and built by California-based startup Made in Space, created an extruder plate — a piece of itself — Nov. 24, wrapping up the task in about an hour. The milestone marks a step toward a future in which voyaging spaceships print out their own spare parts on the go and colonists on other worlds make what they need from the dirt beneath their boots, advocates say.

“This is the first object truly manufactured off of planet Earth,” Made in Space Chief Executive Aaron Kemmer said in an interview. “It’s a huge milestone, not only for Made in Space and NASA, but for humanity as a whole.”

The extruder plate, which measures roughly 7.6 centimeters long by 3.8 centimeters wide by 0.6 centimeters thick, features the logos of both Made in Space and NASA, Kemmer said. Choosing the plate, which holds in the p…

5 Top Landing Sites For A Manned Mission To Mars

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If the European Space Agency (ESA) can put a probe on a reckless comet out beyond the orbit of Mars, suddenly sending humans to the Red Planet seems altogether doable. Coupled with last week’s successful test launch of NASA’s Orion spacecraft, talk of astronaut encampments on Mars now actually appears credible.

If so, where would the first manned mission to Mars choose to set up shop?

There are three basic criteria for picking a Mars manned landing site — a spot that’s sustainable in terms of water, energy generation and building materials. One that’s scientifically interesting for a lengthy mission. And, most importantly, one that is safe to land. Thus far, most researchers remain wary of committing themselves to any given site.

“But there’s no time that’s too early to get [the site selection process] started,” John Grant, a planetary scientist at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., told Forbes. “The more imaging and radar data you’re able to coll…

NASA’s New Orion Spacecraft Completes First Spaceflight Test

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Major Milestone on Agency's Journey to Mars

NASA marked a major milestone Friday on its journey to Mars as the Orion spacecraft completed its first voyage to space, traveling farther than any spacecraft designed for astronauts has been in more than 40 years.

“Today’s flight test of Orion is a huge step for NASA and a really critical part of our work to pioneer deep space on our Journey to Mars,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. “The teams did a tremendous job putting Orion through its paces in the real environment it will endure as we push the boundary of human exploration in the coming years.”

Orion blazed into the morning sky at 7:05 a.m. EST, lifting off from Space Launch Complex 37 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on a United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket. The Orion crew module splashed down approximately 4.5 hours later in the Pacific Ocean, 600 miles southwest of San Diego.

During the uncrewed test, Orion traveled twice through the Van Allen b…

Orion capsule is headed into deep space – and it takes hopes for commercial space travel and Mars with it

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After a private rocket blew up just weeks ago, and as public enthusiasm for space travel surges, the Orion launch could make or break commercial space travel and hopes for exploration of Mars Only recently, some experts’ hopes for pioneering space exploration had dwindled, as funding cuts and public boredom pulled down enthusiasm. The Orion space capsule, set to launch into deep space tomorrow, could resurrect those hopes – or it could dash them completely.

The launch is part of Nasa’s plans to develop the capabilities to land humans on an asteroid in 2025, and Mars in 2030 – plans that depend heavily on the input of private companies. If all goes well, in less than 20 years astronauts will leave Earth aboard an Orion spacecraft like the one launching tomorrow, and get out on Mars.

Orion has been built for Nasa by Lockheed Martin – an example of the increasing input from commercial companies into space exploration. The mission, called Exploration Flight Test-1, will not simply be …

Ground-based telescopes could join hunt for habitable planets

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Search for habitable worlds hots up with the detection of a ‘super-Earth’ planet, 55 Cancri e, using a ground-based telescope Astronomers have detected the silhouette of a planet just twice the diameter of Earth using ground-based telescopes. This is the smallest planet detected with this technique and raises hopes that it could be used to search for Earth-sized worlds capable of supporting life.

The “super-Earth”, known as 55 Cancri e, orbits a relatively nearby sun-like star 41 light years away. As the planet passes in front of the star, it blocks a tiny fraction of the light.

Dr Ernst de Mooij of Queen’s University, Belfast, and his colleagues discovered that for the two hours when the planet was between us and the star, the light coming from the star dropped by 1/2,000th or 0.05% of its usual intensity.

Until now, such a minuscule reduction has only been measurable from space, where the lack of atmosphere allows spacecraft to take more precise readings.

“We are really pushing…