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Space and all it's facinating asspects

July 20th 2017

Elon Musk tamped down expectations about Space Exploration Technologies Corp.’s new rocket designed to carry private citizens into space, saying whoever chooses to be among the first passengers will need to be "brave."

The SpaceX Falcon Heavy, a rocket with two extra boosters attached and a total of 27 engines that must fire simultaneously, will have enormous stresses and has been difficult to test on the ground, Musk said Wednesday in Washington.

He jokingly urged attendees of a conference on the International Space Station to watch the first attempted launch.

"It’s guaranteed to be exciting,” he said. When asked whether the risks would make potential customers pause before signing up for a flight, he said: "I want to make sure we set expectations accordingly."

SpaceX has an ambitious agenda for the cosmos in coming years. The company began taking deposits from private citizens for a trip around the moon on the Falcon Heavy rocket. And it is working with NASA to carry astronauts to the International Space Station. But the company has only transported cargo so far, and Musk said shifting to carrying passengers is “a huge step up.”

Getting certified to carry NASA astronauts has been a challenge for SpaceX, as there is a much higher bar than transporting hardware for the agency, Musk said. He called NASA’s oversight for "really tough" but justified because of the potential risks to humans.

"It’s the right motivation,” he said.

SpaceX and NASA are now working through some “small technical bones of contention" for certification to carry passengers, he said. Meanwhile, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, which regulates commercial space flight separately from NASA, hasn’t yet set certification standards for carrying private citizens for hire.

The company continues its attempts to reuse more of its rockets and launch equipment, a more-efficient approach that has been the biggest innovation in space flight in recent years, Musk said.

SpaceX has successfully landed its rocket boosters and used them again. It’s now "quite close" to being able to reuse the fairing that clamps over the rocket’s payload, a relatively light-weight aerodynamic cover, he said.

The fairing costs between $5 and $6 million. "Imagine we have a pallet of cash worth $6 million dollars falling through the sky," Musk said he has told his staff. "Would we try to catch it? I say we do."

He didn’t provide details about how the fairing would be captured.

Musk’s talk on Wednesday was to an overwhelmingly friendly audience of scientists as eager as he is to explore space. Topics ranged from how his project to build tunnels to stem the Los Angeles region’s traffic congestion might help colonize Mars to the health risks of traveling beyond Earth’s atmosphere.

He downplayed the potential for human conflict on Mars, calling it "pretty open territory" where competing entities could find plenty of room without challenging each others’ claims. After praising NASA and noting it stood to get increased federal funding, he drew applause.

The billionaire entrepreneur said development of the Falcon Heavy had been much tougher than he imagined. By adding two additional boosters to each side of a rocket, it added to the vibrations, created new stresses to the main rocket and was difficult to test without an actual launch.

"There is a lot of risk associated with Falcon Heavy, a real good chance that that vehicle doesn’t make it to orbit," he said. "I’m saying full disclosure here, man."

Government reviews have echoed some of his concerns. The Government Accountability Office found earlier this year that SpaceX and competitor Boeing Co. must contend with potential safety hazards that may postpone approvals for transporting astronauts until 2019. A U.S. contract with Russia for transportation to the space station expires that year.

The GAO’s findings follow a September report by NASA’s Office of Inspector General, which warned of “multiple challenges that will likely delay the first routine flight carrying NASA astronauts to the ISS until late 2018.” Agency funding challenges, delays in NASA’s evaluation process and technical challenges with spacecraft designs have all contributed to the program falling behind schedule.

There have been two major mishaps with its rockets since 2015, a sign of how difficult rocket science can be.

On June 28, 2015, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket disintegrated shortly after launch from Cape Canaveral, Florida. Another Falcon 9 blew up on the ground in Florida.

But SpaceX has also had numerous successes, making it one of the most formidable companies in the space market. It has pioneered reusable rockets, for example, which it has successfully landed in Cape Canaveral and on an ocean barge.

July 8th 2017

Scientists have looked back in time, further than they usually can with the instruments available to them, at a faraway galaxy composed of bright clumps of newborn stars. The great distance and the time it takes light to travel that far mean the galaxy appears to these Earth-bound humans as it was 11 billion years ago, or just 2.7 billion years after the Big Bang.

"When we saw the reconstructed image we said, 'Wow, it looks like fireworks are going off everywhere,'" astronomer Jane Rigby of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, said in a statement.

Astronomers have used the Hubble Space Telescope, taken advantage of a natural phenomenon and applied new computational methods to capture closer-up and more detailed images—about 10 times sharper than they could with the telescope alone. The findings were published in three papers: One in  The Astrophysical Journal Letters and two in  The Astrophysical Journal.

Hubble was aimed in the direction of galaxies that would normally appear “smooth and unremarkable,” according to NASA. But from this angle, the clusters of stars in between Hubble and the galaxy in question have so much mass that they act as a second, natural telescope, magnifying it and making it brighter.

“The gravity from all that mass has distorted the image that we see of the background galaxy,” like a telescope or a “funhouse mirror,” Rigby tells  Newsweek, explaining that it’s an effect that Albert Einstein predicted and that has been proven over and over again since. All of the red and orange clusters in the images are the intermediaries that act as a gravitational lens to make the blue-tinged clusters visible. The main target here—which appears as an arc, like a smile flipped on its side—is magnified by a factor of 28, Rigby says.

However, the double telescope also warps the image. In this case, it stretches out the arc and makes it appear multiple times. A new computational technique developed by Traci Johnson, a doctoral candidate at the University of Michigan and lead author on two of the three papers, helped researchers figure out how the galaxy was warped and undo it. They’ve reconstructed what they believe the image would look like without the distortions.

The new images provide a view of the faraway stars as they would appear with a telescope nearly 33 feet in diameter; Hubble is 8 feet in diameter, Rigby says. She adds that it helps offer a “sneak preview of what universe would look like if we could build a much larger telescope than Hubble.”

The James Webb Space Telescope, which has a 21.3-foot diameter and is scheduled to launch in October 2018, will offer views even farther out and through dust that may be obscuring Hubble’s view. With Webb, researchers will be able to observe older stars and galaxies as they appeared in the first billion years after the Big Bang, which will help them continue studying how star formation evolved over time.

Hubble and Webb, Rigby says, “see so far out in the universe that they're acting like time machines.”

July 8th 2017

Rare hypervelocity stars tearing through the Milky Way galaxy are runaway suns that have escaped neighbouring galaxies, according to research presented at this year’s National Astronomy Meeting in Hull, England.

Hypervelocity stars are travelling between 300 and 700 kilometers (186 and 435 miles) per second faster than our galaxy’s escape velocity. Only 20 cases have been confirmed so far, most of them late B‑type stars that are larger than our sun.

There has been some debate around the origin of these breakaway stars. Scientists believed a portion of them might have been lobbed from the Milky Way’s central rotational center.

But a paper published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society in March makes the argument that all the hypervelocity stars are actually foreign objects. The research was presented at the National Astronomy Meeting in Hull on Wednesday.

The idea is that these ultra-fast stars were part of a binary system and escaped their original home – the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC) – a neighbouring satellite galaxy. A supernova explosion made the orbit between both stars unstable, and the schism caused the smaller one to be booted far away like a ball in a slingshot.

A group of researchers from the University of Cambridge in the UK dug into data taken from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey to build computer simulations of runaway stars escaping from the LMC to the Milky Way.

They started by modelling the stellar evolution of the birth and death of stars in the LMC over the past two billion years, and focused on every runaway star. The gravitational interactions between these stars were also simulated so that they could reproduce and track the trajectory of the stars. They predict that there are 10,000 runaway stars spread across the sky.

There should also be about a million runaway neutron stars or black holes, since some of the massive blue stars reach the end of their lives on their way out of the LMC. They should collapse to neutron stars or black holes that continue zipping through the Milky Way.

Only half of the simulated stars that escape the LMC are fast enough to escape the gravity of the Milky Way, making them hypervelocity stars. If the confirmed hypervelocity stars are runaways, it would also explain their position in the sky.

'Hypervelocity stars did not satisfy me'

“Earlier explanations for the origin of hypervelocity stars did not satisfy me,” said Douglas Boubert, lead author of the paper and a PhD student at Cambridge’s Institute of Astronomy.

“The hypervelocity stars are mostly found in the Leo and Sextans constellations – we wondered why that is the case.”

The closer stars in a binary system are, the faster they orbit one another, and they’re more likely to reach speeds fast enough to become hypervelocity stars. Runaway stars starting out in the Milky Way are too slow to become hypervelocity stars because the blue B‑type stars can’t orbit close enough to their companion star in the binary system without merging, the researchers argue.

But fast-moving galaxies like the LMC could give rise to these swift stars. The LMC also has 10 per cent of the mass of the Milky Way, so the fastest runaways can easily escape the galaxy’s pull.

Like a bullet fired from a moving train, the speed of these escaping stars would be the velocity they were booted at plus the velocity of the LMC. This boost increases the likelihood that these stars become hypervelocity ones when they stream through the Milky Way.

“These stars have just jumped from an express train – no wonder they’re fast,” said Rob Izzard, co‑author of the paper and a Rutherford fellow at the Institute of Astronomy. “This also explains their position in the sky, because the fastest runaways are ejected along the orbit of the LMC towards the constellations of Leo and Sextans.”

“We’ll know soon enough whether we’re right,” said Boubert. “The European Space Agency’s Gaia satellite will report data on billions of stars next year, and there should be a trail of hypervelocity stars across the sky between the Leo and Sextans constellations in the North and the LMC in the South.”

Another independent group of researchers are also hoping to study hypervelocity stars by trying to find more specimens through data with the help of artificial neural networks. ®

 

June 17th 2017

Pairs of entangled photons created on a satellite orbiting Earth have survived the long, perilous trip from space to ground stations. Crucially, they are still linked despite being picked up by receivers over 1,200km (745mi) apart – the longest link ever seen before.

“This is a scientific breakthrough,” says Rupert Ursin, a quantum physicist at the Institute for Quantum Optics and Quantum Information in Vienna, Austria, who was not involved in the research.

Many teams around the world are duking it out to create secure quantum communication technology. Unlike securing messages from prying eyes with classical encryption, securing with quantum methods means any tinkering would leave a trace.

One idea is to send linked, or “entangled,” photons whose behavior changes when you try to tinker. The special “polarization” property (you could think of the direction of a bar magnet) of either correlated photon could act like both a secure encryption and decryption key.

Previously, researchers have been able to teleport entangled photons that remained correlated at distances of around 100km – demonstrating “spooky action at a distance,” as Einstein put it. For example, in 2012 researchers transported entangled photons about 146km apart from one another in the Canary Islands. The problem is that if you try sending quantum bits through the air or through fiber cables, losses are high, so the maximum distance for still being able to measure a correlation between photons has been limited, Ursin says.

In the new study, Chinese researchers used the custom-built “Micius” satellite at an orbit of approximately 500km to create six million entangled photons and blast them at ground stations in China that were continuously checking for matching photon pairs. The magic is that there’s less signal loss if you distribute the paired photons through space via satellite.

Chao-Yang Lu, a quantum physicist at the University of Science and Technology in China who worked on the data analysis for the project, says it was difficult to pull the experiment off because of diffraction as well as absorption and turbulence in the atmosphere. Aiming is also a challenge because of the high speeds of the satellite and its distance to the ground.

How are correlated photons created?

The two correlated photons are created when a laser shines through a crystal. Eventually, by verifying a correlation test between two photons known as Bell’s inequality (if two photons are correlated, they violate it), the team discovered that the ground stations – separated by 1,203km – could detect a single pair of correlated photons every second.

“The data rate is still low,” Ursin says. If you wanted to encrypt a 5,000-bit email message using this proof of concept experiment, that would take 5,000 seconds. But it’s still a big step forward for the field, he says.

Christoph Marquardt, a quantum physicist at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Light in Erlangen, Germany, says: “It’s kind of surprising how well it worked,” given the experimental conditions.

But he still thinks it’s decades off from practical application for encryption. One of his latest papers on quantum communication, which appears in Optica, shows that if you were willing to trust a third party to store your quantum keys (instead of having that third party have no knowledge in the entangled photon scenario), you could measure "quantum states" on satellites 38,000km away in space. He believes that this sort of quantum communication is much closer to practicality.

Still, Lu says he wasn’t too worried about the practical applications just yet. At some level he says he would have been alright if the experiment didn’t work and the team would discover new physics. He says a next step is trying to make the satellite work during the day – the team ran the experiment around midnight to limit the noise from stray light. He added they also hope to explore higher orbits.

June 12th 2017

Update for June 12, 7 a.m. ET:  Scientists and engineers at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility now aim to launch a Terrier-Improved Malemute sounding rocket tonight between 9:04 p.m. EDT and 9:19 p.m. EDT (0104-0119 GMT). NASA's live webcast will begin at 8:30 p.m. EDT (0030 GMT). Our preview story can be seen below.

A small NASA rocket will launch to create colorful artificial clouds on Sunday night (June 11), and you can watch all the action live. Weather permitting, the launch could be visible to spectators on the U.S. East Coast from New York to North Carolina, NASA officials said.

The two-stage Terrier-Improved Malemute sounding rocket is scheduled to lift off from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia between 9:04 p.m. and 9:19 p.m. EDT Sunday (0104 to 0119 GMT on Monday, June 12). You can watch it live here on Space.com, courtesy of NASA; coverage begins at 8:30 p.m. EDT (0030 GMT on Monday). 

You can also follow the flight on the Wallops Ustream site: http://www.ustream.tv/channel/nasa-tv-wallops.

About 5 minutes after liftoff, the rocket will deploy 10 soft-drink-size canisters, which will release barium, strontium and cupric-oxide vapor to form blue-green and red artificial clouds.

"These clouds, or vapor tracers, allow scientists on the ground to visually track particle motions in space," NASA officials wrote in a mission update. "The clouds may be visible along the mid-Atlantic coastline from New York to North Carolina."

If you live near the Wallops Island area in Virginia and would like to watch the sounding rocket launch in person, NASA's Wallops Flight Facility Visitors Center will open to the public at 8 p.m. EDT. Because the launch is weather dependent, local spectactors and online viewers can recieve the latest updates from NASA via the Wallops center Facebook and Twitter sites.

·          ·          ·        MORE

02:39

04:16

Update for June 12, 7 a.m. ET:  Scientists and engineers at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility now aim to launch a Terrier-Improved Malemute sounding rocket tonight between 9:04 p.m. EDT and 9:19 p.m. EDT (0104-0119 GMT). NASA's live webcast will begin at 8:30 p.m. EDT (0030 GMT). Our preview story can be seen below.

A small NASA rocket will launch to create colorful artificial clouds on Sunday night (June 11), and you can watch all the action live. Weather permitting, the launch could be visible to spectators on the U.S. East Coast from New York to North Carolina, NASA officials said.

The two-stage Terrier-Improved Malemute sounding rocket is scheduled to lift off from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia between 9:04 p.m. and 9:19 p.m. EDT Sunday (0104 to 0119 GMT on Monday, June 12). You can watch it live here on Space.com, courtesy of NASA; coverage begins at 8:30 p.m. EDT (0030 GMT on Monday). 

You can also follow the flight on the Wallops Ustream site: http://www.ustream.tv/channel/nasa-tv-wallops.

Artificial clouds should be visible shortly after 9 p.m. EDT on June 11 from New York to North Carolina if a NASA sounding rocket launches on time from the agency's Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia.

Credit: NASA

About 5 minutes after liftoff, the rocket will deploy 10 soft-drink-size canisters, which will release barium, strontium and cupric-oxide vapor to form blue-green and red artificial clouds.

"These clouds, or vapor tracers, allow scientists on the ground to visually track particle motions in space," NASA officials wrote in a mission update. "The clouds may be visible along the mid-Atlantic coastline from New York to North Carolina."

If you live near the Wallops Island area in Virginia and would like to watch the sounding rocket launch in person, NASA's Wallops Flight Facility Visitors Center will open to the public at 8 p.m. EDT. Because the launch is weather dependent, local spectactors and online viewers can recieve the latest updates from NASA via the Wallops center Facebook and Twitter sites.

The ampoule doors on the sounding rocket payload are open during testing at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. The Terrier-Improved Malemute rocket is scheduled to launch at 9:04 p.m. EDT on June 11, 2017.

Credit: Berit Bland/NASA

The mission is designed to test a new multicanister ejection system that should allow researchers to gather data over a wider area than has been possible, agency officials added.

The rocket's total flight time will be about 8 minutes. The mission's main payload will hit the Atlantic Ocean about 90 miles (145 kilometers) off the Virginia coast and will not be recovered, NASA officials said.

The mission was originally supposed to lift off late last month, but it has been delayed several times by weather and once by a boat straying into the launch zone.

Editor's note: If you capture an amazing image of the sounding rocket launch or the colorful artificial clouds that you would like to share with Space.com and its news partners for a story or photo gallery, send photos and comments to: spacephotos@space.com.

 

June 4th 2017

A refurbished robotic Dragon spaceship rocketed into orbit from Florida on Saturday aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 launcher, hauling nearly 6,000 pounds of crew provisions and biological, astrophysics and space technology experiments on a two-day trip to the International Space Station.

The unpiloted capsule soared into a late afternoon sky from launch pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center at 5:07:38 p.m. EDT (2107:38 GMT) Saturday, two days later than planned after a thunderstorm prevented liftoff Thursday.

Nine Merlin 1D engines, generating a combined 1.7 million pounds of thrust, powered the 213-foot-tall (65-meter) Falcon 9 rocket through a high-altitude cloud deck as the launcher arced to the northeast, aligning with the space station’s orbital track.

It was the 100th launch from historic pad 39A, the previous home to Saturn 5 moon rockets and space shuttles. SpaceX began launch operations there in February, and has now flown six rockets from the seaside launch complex.

The Falcon 9’s first stage engines shut down and deployed the rocket’s second stage more than 40 miles (65 kilometers) over the Atlantic Ocean, then the booster activated nitrogen cold gas thrusters to flip around and fly tail first.

While the upper stage accelerated into orbit, three of the Merlin’s first stage engines ignited to begin maneuvers to return the first stage to Landing Zone 1, and two more braking burns slowed the 156-foot-tall (47-meter) for a smooth vertical touchdown around 9 miles (14 kilometers) from where the mission started.

The landing marked the fifth time SpaceX has returned a rocket booster to Cape Canaveral — all successful. The commercial launch company has recovered 11 rockets in 16 tries overall, a figure that includes landings at sea.

SpaceX aims to reuse the first stages, an initiative the company says will slash launch costs. The rocket that launched on the space station resupply run Saturday was entirely new, but the primary structure of the gumdrop-shaped Dragon cargo capsule on top previously flew on a 34-day orbital mission in September and October 2014, another first for SpaceX.

Engineers examined and stripped the spacecraft’s structure after it splashed down in the Pacific Ocean on Oct. 25, 2014, following a visit to the space station, but the “majority” of the Dragon cargo capsule is the original article, according to Hans Koenigsmann, SpaceX’s director of flight reliability.

He said engineers compared the structural loads and shaking components inside the Dragon capsule experienced on its 2014 flight with their design limits.

“That tells us how much life the component has, and we make sure that the component has enough life for the next round,” Koenigsmann said. “There is a statistical variation, so you have to make a worst-case assumption, basically, to be on the safe side.”

SpaceX goes through a similar review of parts on Falcon 9 boosters before clearing them for a re-flight, he said.

Kirk Shireman, NASA’s program manager for the International Space Station, said before Saturday’s launch that the space agency expects to approve SpaceX plans to re-fly more Dragon capsules and Falcon 9 boosters on future cargo missions to the orbiting research outpost.

SpaceX has two multibillion-dollar contracts with NASA to ferry equipment to and from the space station. The terms of the deal call for at least 26 missions, and 10 of those are in the books, including a failed cargo launch in 2015.

A close-up view of the Dragon cargo craft on top of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket before Saturday’s launch. Credit: SpaceX

NASA has also contracted with SpaceX to develop a Crew Dragon vehicle capable to ferrying astronauts to and from the space station beginning as soon as next year.

Officials said SpaceX’s next cargo mission to the station, scheduled for launch some time in August, will employ a newly-manufactured Dragon capsule.

“We share the results with NASA, and review them together, and we conclude that we can either fly a component, or in some cases, we have to make a swap with a new component,” Koenigsmann said, adding that such occurrences were “very few.”

According to Koenigsmann, SpaceX technicians replaced several items that were exposed to salt water after splashdown, such as batteries and the capsule’s heat shield. But the hull, thrusters, harnessing, propellant tanks, and some avionics boxes are original, he said.

“I can tell you the majority of this Dragon has been in space before,” Koenigsmann said.

Officials did not say if NASA was compensated for its approval of SpaceX’s plans to launch a refurbished Dragon capsule to approach the space station.

Without specifying details, Shireman said the agreement is part of a normal back-and-forth between the government and the commercial operator, in which one party barters with the other.

The Dragon spacecraft is on a two-day voyage to the space station, where it is scheduled to arrive at 10 a.m. EDT (1400 GMT) Monday, when astronauts Peggy Whitson and Jack Fischer will grapple the approaching capsule with the station’s Canadian-built robotic arm.

“The space station is in excellent shape, ready to receive Dragon,” said Ven Feng, manager of the space station transportation integration office at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.

An on-board camera on the Falcon 9 rocket’s second stage captured this view of the Dragon supply freighter deploying in orbit. Credit: SpaceX

The robot arm will move the Dragon supply ship to a berthing port on the station’s Harmony module, where it is scheduled to stay for nearly one month.

The station crew, reduced to three after the landing of a Russian cosmonaut and French astronaut Friday, will unpack 3,761 pounds (1,665 kilograms) of equipment and experiments loaded inside the Dragon capsule’s previously-flown pressurized module.

Some food and provisions for the station’s crew are strapped inside the Dragon freighter, but research investigations take up the bulk of the ship’s volume.

“Really, the utility of this SpaceX mission is science,” Feng said. “We have literally tons and tons of science going up on this mission.”

Three payloads stowed inside the Dragon’s external rear trunk will be be removed robotically.

One of the unpressurized experiments, NASA’s Neutron Star Interior Composition Explorer, will study the super-dense leftovers from violent supernova explosions. Made of 56 individual X-ray telescopes, the NICER instrument will observe neutron stars, the collapsed city-sized remnants of stars that have used up all of their nuclear fuel.


June 2nd 2017


CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — SpaceX is taking recycling to a whole new realm — all the way to orbit.

On this week’s supply run to the International Space Station, SpaceX will launch a Dragon capsule that’s already traveled there. The milestone comes just two months after the launch of its first reused rocket booster for a satellite.

“This whole notion of reuse is something that’s very, very important to the entire space industry,” NASA’s space station program manager Kirk Shireman said at a news conference Wednesday.

While the concept is not new — the space shuttles, for instance, flew multiple times in orbit — it’s important for saving money as well as technical reasons, he noted.

This particular Dragon flew to the station in 2014. SpaceX refurbished it for Thursday evening’s planned launch, providing a new heat shield and fresh parachutes for re-entry at mission’s end. There were so many X-rays and inspections that savings, if any, were minimal this time, said Hans Koenigsmann, vice president of flight reliability for SpaceX.

The vast majority of this Dragon has already been to space, including the hull, thrusters and tanks. It’s packed with 6,000 pounds of station cargo, including mice and flies for medical research.

While this Falcon booster is new, SpaceX will attempt to land it at Cape Canaveral following liftoff so it, too, can be reused. So far, first-stage boosters have flown back and landed vertically four times on the designated X at the Air Force station; even more touchdowns have occurred on ocean platforms, all part of an effort to save time and money.

The private SpaceX and NASA are discussing the possibility of flying a reused booster on an upcoming delivery mission.

Koenigsmann told reporters more and more reused capsules will carry cargo to the space station, each possibly flying three times. Dragon capsules are being developed to carry astronauts to the space station as early as next year; it’s too soon to say whether those, too, will be recycled, he said.

Wednesday marked the fifth anniversary of the return of the first Dragon capsule to visit the space station. This will be the 12th Dragon visit overall and the 11th under NASA contract. The Dragon is the only unmanned supply ship that returns to Earth; the others are filled with trash and burn up on re-entry.

And by SpaceX’s count, this will be the 100th launch from NASA’s historic Launch Complex 39-A at Kennedy Space Center. It’s the same exact spot from which men flew to the moon and shuttles soared until their retirement in 2011. SpaceX is leasing the pad from NASA.

Fairly good weather is forecast for the 5:55 p.m. liftoff.

Two of the space station’s five residents, meanwhile, are scheduled to return to Earth on Friday via a Russian Soyuz capsule. A Russian and Frenchman will be headed home, leaving two Americans and one Russian in orbit.

April 19th 2017

Scientists sounded the alarm Tuesday over the problems posed to space missions from orbital junk -- the accumulating debris from mankind's six-decade exploration of the cosmos.

In less than a quarter of a century, the number of orbiting fragments large enough to destroy a spacecraft has more than doubled, a conference in Germany heard.

And the estimated tally of tiny objects -- which can harm or degrade spacecraft in the event of a collision, and are hard to track -- is now around 150 million.

"We are very much concerned," said Rolf Densing, director of operations at the European Space Agency (ESA), pleading for a worldwide effort to tackle the mess.

"This problem can only be solved globally."

Travelling at up to 28,000 kilometres (17,500 miles) per hour, even a minute object impacts with enough energy to damage the surface of a satellite or manned spacecraft.

In 1993, monitoring by ground-based radar showed there to be around 8,000 manmade objects in orbit that were larger than 10 centimetres (4.5 inches) across, a size big enough to inflict catastrophic damage, said Holger Krag, in charge of ESA's space debris office.

"Today, we find in space roughly 5,000 objects with sizes larger than 1 metre (3.25 feet), roughly 20,000 objects with sizes over 10 centimetres... and 750,000 'flying bullets' of around one centimetre (half an inch)," he said.

"For objects larger than one millimetre (0.04 inch), 150 million is our model estimate for that."

Risks of collision are statistically remote, but rise as litter increases and more satellites are deployed.

"The growth in the number of fragments has deviated from the linear trend in the past and has entered into the more feared exponential trend," Krag warned.

The conference in Darmstadt, whose opening was broadcast online, is the biggest-ever gathering dedicated to space debris.

Experts will spend four days discussing debris and measures to mitigate space litter such as by "de-orbiting" satellites after their working lives.

- Debris fields -

Krag pointed to two events that had badly worsened the problem, creating debris fields that may generate further junk as pieces smash into each other.

The second was in January 2007, when China tested an anti-satellite weapon on an old Fengyun weather satellite.

The other was in February 2009, when an Iridium telecoms satellite and Kosmos-2251, a Russian military satellite, accidentally collided.

With enough warning, satellites can shift position to avoid a collision, but this uses fuel and potentially shortens operational life.

ESA receives a high-risk collision alert every week on average for its 10 satellites in low-Earth orbit, Krag said. Each has to resort to "one or two" avoidance manoeuvres per year.

In a message from the International Space Station, French astronaut Thomas Pesquet said the station was shielded for objects up to 1 cm across.

The ISS often has to make manoeuvres to avoid debris, but needs 24 hours' warning to do this, using onboard thrusters, he said.

If there is less time, "our crew will have to close all the hatches and enter the safe haven which is our Soyuz spacecraft so that we can depart the ISS in the case of a collision," he said. "This has happened four times in the history of the ISS programme."

- Space junkyards -

Experts pointed to two once-pristine sites that have become worryingly cluttered since the space age dawned in 1957.

One is low Earth orbit -- generally defined as less than 2,000 kilometres (1,200 miles) from Earth -- which is used by satnav satellites, the ISS, China's manned missions and the Hubble telescope, among others.

The other is in geostationary orbit, a coveted zone 35,000 km (22,000 miles) away used by communications, weather and surveillance satellites that must maintain a fixed position relative to Earth.

The trash ranges from fuel tanks and Soviet-era nuclear-powered satellites, dripping sodium and potassium coolant from decrepit hulls, to nuts, bolts and tools dropped by spacewalking astronauts.

The items ironically include a 1.5-metre (five-feet) debris shield that floated off as it was being installed on the ISS on March 30. Lost in low orbit, the shield will eventually be plucked into Earth's atmosphere and burn up.

April 14th 2017

Enceladus

An ice-encrusted moon orbiting Saturn appears to have the conditions necessary for life, NASA announced Thursday, unveiling new findings made by its unmanned Cassini spacecraft.

Cassini has detected hydrogen molecules in vapor plumes emanating from cracks in the surface of Enceladus, a small ocean moon coated in a thick layer of ice, the US space agency said.

The plumes have led scientists to infer that hydrothermal chemical reactions between the moon's rocky core and its ocean -- located under the ice crust -- are likely occurring on Enceladus.

On Earth, those chemical reactions allow microbes to flourish in hot cracks in the planet's ocean floors -- depths sunlight cannot reach -- meaning the moon could also nourish life.

"Now, Enceladus is high on the list in the solar system for showing habitable conditions," said Hunter Waite, one of the study's leading researchers.

The new research, published Thursday in the journal Science, "indicates there is chemical potential to support microbial systems," he said.

The hydrogen detection resulted from Cassini's October 2015 deep dive close to the surface of Enceladus.

Using a spectrometer, the spacecraft determined that the plumes are 98 percent water and one percent hydrogen, with traces of molecules including ammonia, carbon dioxide and methane.

Hydrogen had previously been "elusive," scientists said, but its detection shows the moon's life-supporting potential.

The hydrogen in the sub-surface ocean could combine with carbon dioxide molecules in a process known as "methanogenesis," which creates a byproduct of methane. If there are indeed microbes living in the moon's ocean, they could tap that energy source as sustenance.

Scientists said the moon appeared to have ample energy supplies to support life -- roughly the equivalent of 300 pizzas per hour, according to Christopher Glein, a geochemist at the Southwest Research Institute in Texas.

"This is the first time we've been able to make a calorie count of an alien ocean," he said.

 'Pushing the frontiers'

Though Cassini does not have instruments capable of actually finding signs of life, "we've found that there's a food source there for it," said Waite.

"It would be like a candy store for microbes."

Jeffrey Seewald of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution echoed those comments in a companion article to the study: "This observation has fundamental implications for the possibility of life on Enceladus."

"Chemical disequilibrium that is known to support microbial life in Earth's deep oceans is also available to support life in the Enceladus ocean."

In a separate study published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters, scientists using the Hubble Space Telescope again found what is likely a plume emitting from Europa, one of Jupiter's four largest moons, which also has an icy crust atop an ocean.

After first spotting the apparent plume in 2014, scientists in 2016 saw it in the same spot, which appears to be a particularly warm region of Europa where fissures occur in the icy crust.

Both studies are laying the foundation for the Europa Clipper mission, which is slated to launch in the 2020s.

The Europa Clipper will periodically fly past Jupiter's Europa moon to collect data and study the subsurface ocean.

"If there are plumes on Europa, as we now strongly suspect, with the Europa Clipper we will be ready for them," said James Green, NASA's Planetary Science Division Director.

Cassini is slated to take a death plunge into Saturn's atmosphere in September, after it takes a final flyby of the giant moon Titan and a performs a series of 22 dives between the planet and its rings.

The decision to end the mission was made in 2010, in order to avoid damaging moons like Enceladus, which could be explored for signs of life in the future.

Researchers called its latest discovery a "capstone finding for the mission."

"We're pushing the frontiers. We're finding new environments," said Green.

"We're looking in a way that we never thought possible before for environments in our solar system which may harbor life today."

Space News

For most of its decades in service, the Kennedy Space Center has served the US as one of the federal government’s most important spaceports. Astronauts flew from Kennedy on missions to the moon in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and in the 1980s the center was home to Nasa’s reusable space shuttles. Saturday’s launch was the first since that fleet retired, and part of the center’s transition to a spaceport open to public and private missions.

Over its years of competing with Boeing and Lockheed Martin for deals, SpaceX has secured $1.6bn in contracts with the US government for resupply missions, and hundreds of millions more in contracts with private companies seeking to deliver satellites into orbit.

 

— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) February 19, 2017

The private spaceflight company was dealt a major setback in September 2016 when one of its rockets exploded on a Cape Canaveral launchpad, according to Musk, because its supercooled oxygen fuel became too cold – and solid – and ignited in reaction with other chemicals. The subsequent blast destroyed not only the hugely expensive rocket but also its cargo, which included a satellite project funded in part by Facebook.

The company successfully launched and landed a reusable Falcon 9 rocket in January, delivering 10 satellites for the telecoms and technology giant Iridium.

Musk has repeatedly said he hopes to launch manned missions, and last year announced an ambitious plan to reach Mars with the first ever private, unmanned mission. But on Friday, the SpaceX president, Gwynne Shotwell, told reporters that the company had delayed the project for a scheduled 2020 launch.

“We were focused on 2018, but we felt like we needed to put more resources and focus more heavily on our crew program and our Falcon Heavy program,” Shotwell she said.

Nasa currently relies on Russian spaceports to deliver astronauts to the ISS, and SpaceX has plans to modify its rockets and capsules for crewed flights by 2018, though a report by the Government Accountability Office suggested the schedule was overly optimistic. Nasa has also planned a rover mission to Mars in 2020.

SpaceX pulled off its fifth rocket landing in the last seven months early Monday morning (July 18), this time bringing a booster back during a successful cargo launch toward the International Space Station (ISS).

SpaceX's two-stage Falcon 9 rocket blasted off at 12:45 a.m. EDT (0445 GMT) Monday from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, sending the company's robotic Dragon spacecraft speeding toward the ISS.

About 2.5 minutes after liftoff, the Falcon 9's first stage separated and performed a series of engine burns to head back to Cape Canaveral. At 12:53 a.m. EDT (0453 GMT), the booster touched down softly a few miles south of its launch pad, eliciting a huge round of cheers from the SpaceX personnel gathered at the company's headquarters in Hawthorne, California. [Photos: SpaceX Launches Cargo Mission, Lands Rocket Again]

Land, inspect, relaunch

SpaceX now has five successful rocket landings to its name. The first occurred in December 2015, when a Falcon 9 first stage came back to Cape Canaveral during a commercial satellite launch. The next three — one in April and two in May — featured sea landings, on a robotic ship named "Of Course I Still Love You."

Such "droneship" landings are necessary for missions that launch payloads to distant orbits, because the rockets involved generally cannot carry enough fuel to make it all the way back to land, SpaceX representatives have said.

All of these touchdowns are part of SpaceX's effort to develop fully and rapidly reusable rockets, which company founder and CEO Elon Musk has said could dramatically reduce the cost of spaceflight. Indeed, the company plans to launch most of its landed boosters multiple times, and the first such reflight could come as early as this autumn.

But the landed rockets are piling up fast now — so fast that SpaceX might soon have to procure storage space beyond the hangar it currently uses at Cape Canaveral.

"I don't know exactly what all our options are," Hans Koenigsmann, vice president of flight reliability at SpaceX, said during a prelaunch news conference Saturday (July 16). "I know that the team is working on that, and I believe that we're looking at different hangars in the vicinity."

"It's a good problem to have, right?" he added with a laugh.

Dragon is on its way

The rocket landing, while dramatic and exciting, was but a secondary objective of Monday's launch. The main goal — which the Falcon 9 also achieved — was sending Dragon on its way to the orbiting lab on a cargo mission for NASA.

If all goes according to plan, Dragon will arrive at the ISS early Wednesday morning (July 20).

The uncrewed cargo capsule is packed with about 3,800 lbs. (1,700 kilograms) of supplies, hardware and scientific gear, including 2,050 lbs. (930 kg) of research samples. Also onboard is an instrument designed to help manage maritime traffic on Earth, said Julie Robinson, chief ISS program scientist.

"From an overall perspective, this is just part of the rich stream of research going on on the space station, from human research, biology, physical sciences investigations and things for exploration technology," Robinson said during Saturday's briefing.

Dragon is also toting a crucial docking adapter, which will allow future crewed spacecraft — including the manned version of Dragon, which is scheduled to begin flying astronauts next year — to link up with the ISS more easily, NASA officials have said.

"I know how critical this is for NASA and the ISS in general, and also of course for SpaceX going forward with Crew Dragon," Koenigsmann said. "This is a really important piece of hardware."

This is the second attempt Dragon has made to bring such an adapter to the ISS. Another one was aboard the June 2015 Dragon mission, which was lost when the Falcon 9 broke apart less than three minutes after liftoff.

Follow Mike Wall on Twitter @michaeldwall and Google+. Follow us @Spacedotcom, Facebook or Google+. Originally published on Space.com.

The wonders of the universe

March 13th 2017

Mars missions

Mars is the obvious next staging post for mankind's exploration of the solar system - it's only 140 million miles away after all - and there's more than one agency busy arranging trips to the planet. Here we'll run through some of the most high-profile planned missions.

And all of these missions are still at the planning stages, so it's going to be some time yet before any of them are given confirmed dates. It's still not clear who's going to be the first to make it to Mars with a human crew, but it might happen sooner than you think.

NASA continues to confirm its commitment to organising a manned mission to Mars, although there's nothing specific in the calendar just yet - the agency says it hopes to have humans in orbit around the Red Planet by the early 2030s.

Before that happens, several missions will take place somewhere closer to home but beyond the orbit of the moon, to try and give astronauts a chance to adapt to being further away from Earth (and to give scientists more of an opportunity to monitor how deep space living affects our minds and bodies).

NASA is upgrading its hardware in preparation for a manned Mars mission: the Space Launch System (SLS) will enable us to get rockets deeper into space than ever before, while the Orion spacecraft, still in development, is going to be the spacecraft that will eventually carry people to Mars.

Before we can land though, we need to know much more about the surface and the environment of the planet, and to that end NASA is launching another rover mission in 2020. The robot explorer will be based on the Curiosity rover that's already on the surface of Mars, but with a more advanced stack of scientific instruments.

Landing on the surface in February 2021, the new rover will be able to deal with a wider range of terrain and take more detailed measurements. One of the buggy's main objectives will be to assess what humans are going to need to be able to survive on Mars, setting the foundations for Orion's eventual arrival a decade later.

While there are tentative plans for a new NASA orbiter to make its way to Mars in 2022, nothing has been decided yet. Again, the purpose of the spacecraft would be to gather as much data as possible before humans make the trip.

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has made no secret of his plans to colonise Mars, but just like NASA the company has to wait for the technology to catch up with the vision. The plans on the drawing board are very ambitious though - SpaceX has said it wants to get a million-strong Mars colony on the surface of the Red Planet with the next century.

Engineers are currently working on the Interplanetary Transport System (ITS), designed to carry astronauts much deeper into space than ever before, with a capacity capable of carrying 100 people at a time. While the roadmap continues to be tweaked, the bulk of the ITS could be built and ready to carry people as soon as 2024.

A lot of the technology SpaceX is working on, including rocket boosters that can return to Earth and refuel, will eventually find a use in the Interplanetary Transport System. The designs are still being worked on at SpaceX, but the early indications are that the spacecraft are going to be at least as impressive as anything NASA is working on.

What's perhaps even more interesting is what Elon Musk and SpaceX plan to do when we finally arrive on Mars (ticket prices are expected to be around $200,000 per person, by the way). The ambitious CEO has talked about terraforming the planet - artificially modifying the atmosphere to be more like Earth's - as well as farming methane from the atmosphere to power return trips.

Details on this and much of the rest of what SpaceX is planning are still thin on the ground, but Elon Musk hasn't left anyone in any doubt about how risky the trip is going to be for the first few travellers - in fact he says he himself won't be one of the first humans to see Mars because the chance of ever making it back is so low.

Testing for Mars-ready systems is going to begin in the next couple of years, SpaceX says, as the company looks to scale up its existing technologies to get us to the Red Planet. Aside from the official government-backed space agencies around the world, it's definitely the organisation to watch as far as Mars exploration goes.

While other space agencies and private companies have tentative plans to reach Mars one day - the European Space Agency is planning to send a rover to the planet in 2020, for example - the only other stated plans to get people to Mars that we know about at the moment come from private outfit Mars One. Whether those plans will actually become a reality remains to be seen.

Mars One certainly doesn't have the same kind of history behind it or the same high profile as SpaceX, but its plans are nevertheless very ambitious. The company wants to have its first human crew setting off for Mars in 2031 and doesn't expect them to return - this is very much a one-way mission for the first astronauts.

Making the trip one-way significantly reduces the costs of a Mars mission and means the whole operation can be sped up, although there have been questions asked over whether Mars One is actually a viable operation in terms of its finances and its technology - the backers of the project want to fund everything by securing private investment and earning money from broadcasting rights.

There are plenty of missions on the Mars One roadmap, including a demonstration test in 2022, a rover mission in 2026 to do some exploratory work, and a cargo mission currently scheduled for 2029. As with the other missions we've mentioned, there's a lot of groundwork to do (literally in some cases) before astronauts can set off.

And that astronaut selection process is another interesting aspect of the Mars One project - it's going to be turned into a kind of TV event according to the latest plans, with interested volunteers being asked to work through a series of physical and mental challenges to make the final shortlist. After the first crew is chosen, an intensive training regime will begin.

Unfortunately, at this stage it's not altogether clear whether the grand plans that the Mars One team has are going to be realised, with problems reported around funding and technology. At least the project has added to the conversation about getting humans to the Red Planet - and produced some very cool-looking concept art along the way.

Feb 19th 2017

For most of its decades in service, the Kennedy Space Center has served the US as one of the federal government’s most important spaceports. Astronauts flew from Kennedy on missions to the moon in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and in the 1980s the center was home to Nasa’s reusable space shuttles. Saturday’s launch was the first since that fleet retired, and part of the center’s transition to a spaceport open to public and private missions.

Over its years of competing with Boeing and Lockheed Martin for deals, SpaceX has secured $1.6bn in contracts with the US government for resupply missions, and hundreds of millions more in contracts with private companies seeking to deliver satellites into orbit.

 — Elon Musk (@elonmusk) February 19, 2017

The private spaceflight company was dealt a major setback in September 2016 when one of its rockets exploded on a Cape Canaveral launchpad, according to Musk, because its supercooled oxygen fuel became too cold – and solid – and ignited in reaction with other chemicals. The subsequent blast destroyed not only the hugely expensive rocket but also its cargo, which included a satellite project funded in part by Facebook.

The company successfully launched and landed a reusable Falcon 9 rocket in January, delivering 10 satellites for the telecoms and technology giant Iridium.

Musk has repeatedly said he hopes to launch manned missions, and last year announced an ambitious plan to reach Mars with the first ever private, unmanned mission. But on Friday, the SpaceX president, Gwynne Shotwell, told reporters that the company had delayed the project for a scheduled 2020 launch.

“We were focused on 2018, but we felt like we needed to put more resources and focus more heavily on our crew program and our Falcon Heavy program,” Shotwell she said.

Nasa currently relies on Russian spaceports to deliver astronauts to the ISS, and SpaceX has plans to modify its rockets and capsules for crewed flights by 2018, though a report by the Government Accountability Office suggested the schedule was overly optimistic. Nasa has also planned a rover mission to Mars in 2020.

July 18th

SpaceX pulled off its fifth rocket landing in the last seven months early Monday morning (July 18), this time bringing a booster back during a successful cargo launch toward the International Space Station (ISS).

SpaceX's two-stage Falcon 9 rocket blasted off at 12:45 a.m. EDT (0445 GMT) Monday from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, sending the company's robotic Dragon spacecraft speeding toward the ISS.

About 2.5 minutes after liftoff, the Falcon 9's first stage separated and performed a series of engine burns to head back to Cape Canaveral. At 12:53 a.m. EDT (0453 GMT), the booster touched down softly a few miles south of its launch pad, eliciting a huge round of cheers from the SpaceX personnel gathered at the company's headquarters in Hawthorne, California. [Photos: SpaceX Launches Cargo Mission, Lands Rocket Again]

Land, inspect, relaunch

SpaceX now has five successful rocket landings to its name. The first occurred in December 2015, when a Falcon 9 first stage came back to Cape Canaveral during a commercial satellite launch. The next three — one in April and two in May — featured sea landings, on a robotic ship named "Of Course I Still Love You."

Such "droneship" landings are necessary for missions that launch payloads to distant orbits, because the rockets involved generally cannot carry enough fuel to make it all the way back to land, SpaceX representatives have said.

All of these touchdowns are part of SpaceX's effort to develop fully and rapidly reusable rockets, which company founder and CEO Elon Musk has said could dramatically reduce the cost of spaceflight. Indeed, the company plans to launch most of its landed boosters multiple times, and the first such reflight could come as early as this autumn.

But the landed rockets are piling up fast now — so fast that SpaceX might soon have to procure storage space beyond the hangar it currently uses at Cape Canaveral.

"I don't know exactly what all our options are," Hans Koenigsmann, vice president of flight reliability at SpaceX, said during a prelaunch news conference Saturday (July 16). "I know that the team is working on that, and I believe that we're looking at different hangars in the vicinity."

"It's a good problem to have, right?" he added with a laugh.

Dragon is on its way

The rocket landing, while dramatic and exciting, was but a secondary objective of Monday's launch. The main goal — which the Falcon 9 also achieved — was sending Dragon on its way to the orbiting lab on a cargo mission for NASA.

If all goes according to plan, Dragon will arrive at the ISS early Wednesday morning (July 20).

The uncrewed cargo capsule is packed with about 3,800 lbs. (1,700 kilograms) of supplies, hardware and scientific gear, including 2,050 lbs. (930 kg) of research samples. Also onboard is an instrument designed to help manage maritime traffic on Earth, said Julie Robinson, chief ISS program scientist.

"From an overall perspective, this is just part of the rich stream of research going on on the space station, from human research, biology, physical sciences investigations and things for exploration technology," Robinson said during Saturday's briefing.

Dragon is also toting a crucial docking adapter, which will allow future crewed spacecraft — including the manned version of Dragon, which is scheduled to begin flying astronauts next year — to link up with the ISS more easily, NASA officials have said.

"I know how critical this is for NASA and the ISS in general, and also of course for SpaceX going forward with Crew Dragon," Koenigsmann said. "This is a really important piece of hardware."

This is the second attempt Dragon has made to bring such an adapter to the ISS. Another one was aboard the June 2015 Dragon mission, which was lost when the Falcon 9 broke apart less than three minutes after liftoff.

Follow Mike Wall on Twitter @michaeldwall and Google+. Follow us @Spacedotcom, Facebook or Google+. Originally published on Space.com.


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