29Apr2015

News Briefs – Breaking Stories – Oddities

News

A weekly addition of some of the more unusual stories and discoveries in space & astronomy from around the world. Updated daily for those wanting a quick update of current events so keep checking back for all the latest space news.


Branson Won’t Fly in Space in 6 Months, Virgin Says

Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson most likely won’t be going to space in the next six months, despite his recent statementthat he’d be “very disappointed” otherwise.

Mike Moses, president of Virgin Galactic, said yesterday (Oct. 12) that while the company plans to have one of its SpaceShipTwo suborbital vehicles reach altitudes of more than 50 miles (80 kilometers) above Earth’s surface within the next three months, it’s unlikely that passengers — including Branson — will be on board in less than half a year.

Branson made his comments on Oct. 2 at a the Nordic Business Forum in Helsinki. Moses addressed Branson’s comments during a question-and-answer period following a presentation here at the International Symposium for Personal and Commercial Spaceflight (ISPCS).

Read more at: space.com

Citing Safety, NASA Panel Advises Building a New, Costly Mobile Launcher

In August 2010, NASA completed construction of a massive 355-foot tall mobile tower that was to be used to launch its Ares I rocket. It had cost the agency $234 million to build, according toNASA’s inspector general. But there was just one problem—President Obama had canceled the Ares I rocket in February of that year.

Later, Congress would swoop in to reinstate NASA’s rocket-building program by directing the agency to build the Space Launch System. But because this rocket is larger and more powerful than the Ares I vehicle, the mobile launch platform had to be modified to handle the additional weight and thrust. Initial estimates of this expense were $54 million, but the cost has risen substantially above that.

Read more at: Ars Technica

Plutonium Supply for NASA Missions Faces Long-term Challenges

While NASA and the Department of Energy (DOE) have restarted production of a plutonium isotope used to power some space missions, a new report warns of challenges that could threaten its long-term supply.

The Oct. 4 report by the Government Accountability Office, tied to a House space subcommittee hearing on the subject, said that while there is sufficient plutonium-238 in stockpiles now for missions planned through the mid-2020s, scaling up production of the isotope faces a number of technical issues.

“DOE is making progress towards producing new plutonium-238,” said Shelby Oakley, director of acquisition and sourcing management at the GAO, in testimony at the hearing. “However, DOE faces challenges in hiring and training the necessary workforce, perfecting and scaling up chemical processing, and ensuring the availability of reactors that must be addressed or its ability to meet NASA’s needs could be jeopardized.”

Read more at: Space News

VP Mike Pence Visits Virgin Galactic and Stratolaunch Space Ventures in Mojave

Vice President Mike Pence made Mojave, Calif., the latest stop on his nationwide tour of spaceship development sites today, with visits to Virgin Galactic and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s Stratolaunch hangar.

Pence was accompanied by his wife, Karen, as well as other government officials such as House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, whose district includes Mojave.

In his capacity as chairman of the reinstituted National Space Council, Pence has previously visited NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama and Johnson Space Center in Texas.

Read more at: Geekwire

No, Human Space Exploration is Not a Dead End

For Post columnist David Von Drehle, NASA’s renewed focus on human space exploration is “unnecessary” and “a dead end.”

I fundamentally disagree with this assessment. I was excited to see President Trump ensure that the United States remains the leader in space by reestablishing the National Space Council. Under the leadership of Vice President Pence, the council held a meeting last week for the first time in nearly 25 years, announcing a distinct objective: promote a clear U.S. space policy and enact the reforms necessary to strengthen American leadership in space.

Von Drehle’s argument against human space exploration boils down to three main questions, and I’d like to address each of them.

Read more at: Washington Post

Why Does Russia Have a Secret ISS Experiment?

Thursday’s early morning launch at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakstan is a routine one, delivering fuel, water, and food for the six astronauts currently on board the International Space Station. But there’s one thing that’s definitely not routine. Russia’s seven-ton Progress MS-07 tanker will be carrying a secret, a previously unseen instrument attached to the exterior front section of the spacecraft. NASA has no idea what it is.

NASA specialists spotted the unknown gizmo in official photographs of the Progress ship released during mission preparation. Since then, a number of pictures documenting the work on Progress MS-07 in Baikonur also showed the unidentified device, indicating that Russian authorities aren’t really keeping it secret. But when NASA asked about the hardware, Russian officials said only that it would be a scientific payload intended for a one-time trip aboard the cargo ship. They provided no further details.

Read more at: Popular Mechanics

NASA Has Big Plans for the Moon — and Big Competition

Forty-five years after the last moon-walking astronauts blasted off from a chalky-gray lunar valley, the moon is an orbiting ghost town dotted with relics from a once-triumphant space race: six flagpoles (at least one fallen), a statue commemorating dead space pioneers, and a fading family snapshot left on the lunar surface by astronaut Charles Duke at the end of Apollo 16

Check back in a decade, though, and the scene may be radically different. In last week’s inaugural meeting of the revived National Space Council, Vice President Mike Pence vowed that “we will return NASA astronauts to the moon,” spurred by scientific, commercial, and national security interests. His comments formalized the moon-first agenda laid out by U.S. Representative Jim Bridenstine, the new nominee for NASA administrator.

Read more at: NBC News

Record-Setting Marine Corps Spacewalker Leads Ambitious EVA-45 at Space Station

The U.S. Marine Corps is celebrating a new service record today, after Expedition 53 Commander Randy “Komrade” Bresnik—a retired colonel—became the service’s most seasoned spacewalker. Having already become the first Marine to embark on a long-duration voyage to the International Space Station (ISS), when he launched aboard Soyuz MS-05 in July, and the first Marine to command the multi-national orbiting laboratory in September, he chalked up his fourth career spacewalk today (Tuesday, 10 October) and totaled 25 hours and 11 minutes. In doing so, Bresnik eclipses the previous record-holder, fellow Marine Carlos Noriega, who performed three sessions of Extravehicular Activity (EVA), totaling 19 hours and 20 minutes, during the STS-97 shuttle flight in late 2000.

In spite of their enormous contributions to human space exploration, spacewalking has been a surprising rarity for the Marine Corps, with only four astronauts having ventured into the near-total vacuum of space in the last 44 years. The first, Jack Lousma, performed two sessions of EVA outside the Skylab space station in August 1973, during which he installed a twin-pole sunshade for thermal protection.

Read more at: America Space

Progress MS-07 Docks After Missing Out on Record Rendezvous Option

Roscosmos, the federal space agency of the Russian Federation, launched the Progress MS-07 craft on a resupply mission to the International Space Station on Saturday and docked on a Monday docking. A previous option for Progress to debut a new super fast rendezvous with the ISS – docking to the Station just 3.5 hrs after liftoff – was lost after an earlier scrub.

For the third time this year, Roscosmos launched an uncrewed Progress resupply vehicle to the International Space Station. The seventh in the new line of Progress spacecraft, MS-07 was to enjoy a super fast, 2 orbit rendezvous with the ISS, arriving at the orbital outpost just 3.5 hrs after lifting off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, had launch occurred on Thursday.

Read more at: NASA Spaceflight

NASA Studying Potential Cooperation on Russian Lunar Science Missions

NASA is in discussions about potential roles it could play on an upcoming series of Russian robotic lunar missions, including landers and sample return spacecraft.

Jim Green, director of NASA’s planetary science division, told attendees of the annual meeting of the Lunar Exploration Analysis Group (LEAG) here Oct. 11 that he recently returned from a trip to Russia that included talks about cooperation on those future Russian lunar missions.

“There’s been good reception by the Russian space agency to some of the concepts that we discussed relative to NASA’s involvement, potentially, in Luna-25 through Luna-28,” he said. “This is a potential opportunity to the community.” He declined to discuss the details of that potential cooperation, which could range from scientists participating on the teams to the incorporation of NASA-funded instruments on those missions.

Read more at: Space News

Tiangong-1: Chinese Space Station will Crash to Earth Within Months

An 8.5-tonne Chinese space station has accelerated its out-of-control descent towards Earth and is expected to crash to the surface within a few months. The Tiangong-1 or “Heavenly Palace” lab was launched in 2011 and described as a “potent political symbol” of China, part of an ambitious scientific push to turn China into a space superpower.

It was used for both manned and unmanned missions and visited by China’s first female astronaut, Liu Yang, in 2012.

But in 2016, after months of speculation, Chinese officials confirmed they had lost control of the space station and it would crash to Earth in 2017 or 2018. China’s space agency has since notified the UN that it expects Tiangong-1 to come down between October 2017 and April 2018.

Read more at: Guardian

If Mike Pence Wants to Send NASA Back to the Moon, he’ll Need to Find a Way to Pay for it

Last week, Vice President Mike Pence announced a bold new mission for NASA: creating a sustained human presence, perhaps like a lunar base, on the Moon’s surface. It’s a big change for the agency, which has been focused on going to Mars for the last seven years. But just saying NASA is going to do something isn’t enough for the space agency to actually accomplish a task. Ambitious programs require extra money and sustained commitment from Congress in order to become a reality.

Fortunately, NASA is already working on new hardware for deep space missions that could be used to go to the Moon. For the last decade, the space agency has been developing a giant rocket called the Space Launch System, and a crew capsule called Orion to take people to Mars, and those vehicles could easily be used to take astronauts to the lunar surface instead. But establishing a sustained presence on the Moon is going to require the creation of a lunar lander, habitats, life support systems, and more. And all of that will require extra money and time to make. At one point, NASA estimated a return to the Moon would cost upwards of $100 billion.

Read more at: Verge

General Atomics Ramping Cubesat Production, Muses Railgun Smallsat Launcher

General Atomics is better known for building Predator combat drones and mining uranium than building spacecraft, but that could change as the company develops an interest in building defense-focused cubesats.

Also in the realm of possibility: using expertise from building railguns to design a large, electromagnetic cannon as a means to orbit small satellites.

Nick Bucci, vice president of missile defense and space systems for General Atomic’s Electromagnetic Systems Group, said the company has built 11 cubesats for the U.S. Army over the past seven years, and is gradually becoming more and more invested in space.

Read more at: Space News

Strong Solar Storm Sparked Planet-Wide Aurora on Mars

A strong solar storm recently sparked a global aurora on Mars that was more than 25 times brighter than any ever seen before on the Red Planet, researchers say.

NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) orbiter and Curiosity rover both observed effects from the event on Sept. 11, 2017. Curiosity’s Radiation Assessment Detector (RAD) instrument measured radiation levels on the Martian surface that were more than double any previously recorded, agency officials said.

“This is exactly the type of event both missions were designed to study, and it’s the biggest we’ve seen on the surface so far,” RAD principal investigator Don Hassler, of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, said in a statement.

Read more at: Space.com

Confirmed: Cosmic Rays Blast From Supernovae

Ending an astronomical mystery, scientists have confirmed that cosmic rays – high energy subatomic particles – are produced within at least one supernova.

The rays, which consist primarily of protons and atomic nuclei, continuously bombard the Earth’s atmosphere. It’s been known for decades that they originate from outside the solar system, even perhaps outside the galaxy, but how and where they are created has until now remained obscure.

Now research published in the Astrophysical Journal finds that an as yet unknown mechanism within exploding stars is the likely source. The mechanism acts as an accelerator, producing an unexpectedly wide range of particle velocities that cannot be accounted for by the mass and temperature of the gases involved.

Read more at: Cosmos Magazine

Investment for Spaceport in Cornwall to Lift Off?

It looks like we could have lift-off for investment in a spaceport for Cornwall. A trade mission to North America has reported strong interest from potential investors. The delegation led by the Cornwall and Isles of Scilly Local Enterprise Partnership, met with several last week. The group was also given the chance to visit spaceport facilities in California and New Mexico.

The LEP is leading a bid to establish a spaceport at Cornwall Airport Newquay. It is in response to a Government drive to have a commercial launch facility in the UK by 2020.

Read more at: piratefm

What NASA’s Simulated Missions Tell Us About the Need for Martian Law

Six people recently returned from an eight-month long isolation experiment to test human endurance for long-term space missions. Their “journey to Mars” involved being isolated below the summit of the world’s largest active volcano in Hawaii (Mauna Loa), and was designed to better understand the psychological impacts of manned missions.

NASA, which aims to send expeditions to Mars by the 2030s, is hoping that the results could help them pick crew members for a future mission to Mars. And it’s not just NASA that has an eye on Mars. Maverick millionaire Elon Musk and aerospace firm Lockheed Martin have heralded separate missions and stations for the red planet between 2022 and 2028.

Read more at: Conversation

Estimating the Cost of BFR

At this time last year, Elon Musk announced aspirational goals for an Interplanetary Transport System (ITS) of a $200-million ship, a $130-million tanker and a $230-million booster that could cut the cost per ton to Mars eventually to less than $140,000, as shown on slide 41 of his presentation. The assumptions presumably are for a vibrant ship construction industry that is producing dozens, hundreds, or thousands of ships per year, amortizing design costs and tooling costs down to very little per ship. That might not be true until the 2030s or 2040s at best. For comparison, 215 Airbus 380 jetliners have been built since 2005, as of August 31 according to Google.

The new configuration of the booster has decreased the diameter from 12 meters to 9 and the number of engines from 42 to 31. The tanker and ship share the same hull design (and will also take over the role of the Dragon and Red Dragon).

Read more at: Space Review

50 Years Later, the Apollo 11 Command Module Still Dazzles

After carrying Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins to the Moon in 1969, the Apollo 11 command module splashed into the Pacific Ocean. The spacecraft then returned to Houston with the astronauts before embarking on a tour to all 50 states in 1970 and 1971. An estimated three million people visited the spacecraft along the way as it stopped in one city per state, usually the capital.

Following that tour, the historic capsule was installed at Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, and it remained there as one of the institution’s most prized artifacts. Now, finally, the 3.9-meter wide spacecraft is going on tour again. It won’t be visiting all 50 states but instead a select few cities—Houston, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, and, lastly, for the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing in 2019, Seattle. The latter city gets the honor because Amazon founder Jeff Bezos is among those underwriting the tour.

Read more at: Arstechnica

Space Radiation Won’t Stop NASA’s Human Exploration

While it’s true that space radiation is one of the biggest challenges for a human journey to Mars, it’s also true that NASA is developing technologies and countermeasures to ensure a safe and successful journey to the red planet.

“Some people think that radiation will keep NASA from sending people to Mars, but that’s not the current situation,” said, Pat Troutman, NASA Human Exploration Strategic Analysis Lead. “When we add the various mitigation techniques up, we are optimistic it will lead to a successful Mars mission with a healthy crew that will live a very long and productive life after they return to Earth.”

Space radiation is quite different and more dangerous than radiation on Earth. Even though the International Space Station sits just within Earth’s protective magnetic field, astronauts receive over ten times the radiation than what’s naturally occurring on Earth. Outside the magnetic field there are galactic cosmic rays (GCRs), solar particle events (SPEs) and the Van Allen Belts, which contain trapped space radiation.

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