A regular update on the most important news stories in astronomy and space from the best United States and North American news sources. Breaking news, latest discoveries plus the weird and wonderful. Updated regularly


NASA seeks cost-cutting changes in design of WFIRST mission


The head of NASA’s science directorate has requested modifications to the design of its next flagship astrophysics mission based on the recommendations of an independent review.

 Q&A | Telesat’s Erwin Hudson opens up about LEO mega-constellation plans

Telesat is some three to five months ahead of OneWeb in launching low-Earth orbit telecommunications satellites, and barring a surprise launch from SpaceX, will likely be the first new mega-constellation to put hardware into operation.

 Production of new missile warning satellites likely delayed by budget impasse

Thornberry cautioned the budget impasse will keep the Air Force from acquiring additional Space-Based Infrared Warning System satellites, known as SBIRS.

 FAA prepares guidance for wave of 3D-printed aerospace parts

“Three to four years ago, none of my peers believed we would see additive manufacturing of safety-critical parts,” the FAA’s chief scientific and technical adviser for fatigue and damage tolerance said Oct. 19 at the Additive Aerospace conference in Los Angeles.

 XCOR running out of time to find investor

XCOR Aerospace, a company forced to lay off its staff earlier this year when it ran into financial problems, has only weeks left to find an investor willing to rebuild the company or else face liquidation, the company’s chief executive says.

 Blue Origin conducts first test of BE-4 engine

Blue Origin announced Oct. 19 that it conducted the first successful test of its BE-4 engine, a major milestone for both the company’s launch vehicle plans as well as for United Launch Alliance.

 With commercial satellite imagery, computer learns to quickly find missile sites in China

Automation could free up intelligence analysts to spend more time on hard problems that can’t be turned over to a computer.

 Iridium switches next two launches to pre-flown Falcon 9s to preserve schedule

Mobile satellite services provider Iridium will use previously flown Falcon 9 first stages for its next two launches in order not to miss its mid-2018 goal for completing the Iridium Next constellation.

 Google says a third of C-band dishes registered with the FCC aren’t used

Earth-observation data shows that one in three C-band satellite dishes registered with the U.S. Federal Communications Commission either don’t exist or aren’t in use, a spectrum official at Google said last week.

 Flaws in NASA-provided detectors to delay European astronomy mission

Problems with infrared detectors provided by NASA will delay the delivery of an instrument for a European Space Agency astronomy mission by a year or more, a NASA official said Oct. 18.


Air Force Adds More Than $40 Million to SpaceX Engine Contract (Source: Space News)
The U.S. Air Force has provided SpaceX with an additional $40.7 million to support continued development of the company’s Raptor engine. The contract announcement Oct. 19 stated that the Air Force was modifying an existing agreement with SpaceX, originally awarded in January 2016, by providing the company with $40.766 million “for the development of the Raptor rocket propulsion system prototype for the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program.”

The statement didn’t include additional information about the nature of the work other than that it would be completed by the end of April 2018. The work, according to the announcement, would be carried out at NASA’s Stennis Space Center, which hosts engine testing for the Raptor, as well as SpaceX’s headquarters in Hawthorne, California and Los Angeles Air Force Base, home to the Air Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center. (10/21)

NASA Gives Dawn Mission Second Extension (Source: SpaceFlight Insider)
NASA’s Dawn spacecraft, which has been orbiting Ceres since March 2015, has just been given a second mission extension, which will be used to bring the probe into the closest orbit yet around the dwarf planet. Mission scientists will study Ceres’ surface layer of ice as the dwarf planet approaches its April 2018 perihelion, the closest position to the Sun in its elliptical orbit.

In a challenging maneuver, mission engineers will spiral the probe to an elliptical orbit just 120 miles (200 kilometers) above the surface, a move they are still currently refining. The closest Dawn has ever been to the dwarf planet’s surface so far is 240 miles (385 kilometers). Once the spacecraft reaches its new low altitude, its visible light cameras will photograph Ceres’ surface geology. (10/21)

The 2 Steps Richard Branson is Taking to Prepare for His Trip to Space (Source: NBC)
Self-made billionaire Richard Branson recently said he expects to be in space in six months or else he’ll be disappointed. Leading up to his upcoming travel with Virgin Galactic, a business he created to provide commercial flights to space, Branson said he’s actually been taking two steps to make sure he’s prepared for his trip: exercising on a daily basis and doing centrifuge training to simulate gravity.

“I wake up every morning and play a hard game of singles tennis and maybe go kite surfing,” he said. “I play tennis again in the evenings.” Even at 67, Branson’s penchant for daily exercise not only prepare him for space travel, but it’s also histrick to being more productive every day. Along with other activities like running and cycling, Branson has said working out helped him get where he is today.

The other step Branson said that he has been taking to prepare for his trip is centrifuge or “high-G” training. A human centrifuge spins at a high enough speed to simulate the feeling of gravity during a space mission and helps prevent future bodily damage. In 2009, he was seen training at the NASTAR Center, even pumping his fist while doing so. (10/18)

China Confidently Develops Independent Space Technology (Source: Global Times)
China’s achievements in the aerospace industry in the past five years prove the nation can independently develop its own space strategy, and Western countries which used to prevent cooperation with China may think twice, experts said.

They said the breakthroughs in the aerospace industry include the heavy-lift rocket, lunar exploration, BeiDou Navigation Satellite System, and Micius quantum satellite and space station. (10/20)

“These breakthroughs prove that China can develop its own independent space strategy and it’s shortening the gap with the other two major space powers, US and Russia. In some areas China has even surpassed them,” Song Zhongping, a military expert who served in the PLA Rocket Force, told the Global Times on Sunday. (10/21)

Stratolaunch Fires Up Its Engines (Source: Robb Report)
Stratolaunch, which is on track to be the world’s largest airplane, with a wingspan of 385 feet, has completed its first phase of engine testing, the company has announced. This puts the aircraft “one step closer to providing convenient, reliable, and routine access to low Earth orbit,” the company said. All six of the aircraft’s second-hand Pratt & Whitney turbofan engines, which previously powered Boeing 747s, were started up and tested.

The engineering team has checked the fuel system, confirming that all six of the airplane’s fuel tanks operate properly. They also have started work on testing the flight-control system. They will continue testing the engines, using more power and a variety of configurations, until they’re ready for taxi tests, which are expected to start by the end of the year. First flight is expected in 2019, and the airplane should start operations by 2020. (10/21)

These Headsets are Made for Walking Over Mars (Source: Space Daily)
When NASA scientists want to follow the path of the Curiosity rover on Mars, they can don a mixed-reality headset and virtually explore the Martian landscape.

Starting today, everyone can get a taste of what that feels like. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, collaborated with Google to produce Access Mars, a free immersive experience. It’s available for use on all desktop and mobile devices and virtual reality/augmented reality (VR/AR) headsets. That includes mobile-based virtual reality devices on Apple and Android.

The experience was adapted from JPL’s OnSight software, which assists scientists in planning rover drives and even holding meetings on Mars. Imagery from NASA’s Curiosity rover provided the terrain, allowing users to wander the actual dunes and valleys explored by the spacecraft. (10/20)

SpaceX Mum About November Mystery Launch (Source: SpaceFlight Insider)
While the Nov. 10 date has been bandied about, that’s only a “no-earlier-than” date and not a hard date. On Oct. 17, SpaceX released a launch announcement for the Zuma mission. The company, however, provided no details about the launch other than it is targeting no earlier than November.

In an update to its original report, NASASpaceflight.com confirmed that Northrup Grumman is the payload provider for Zuma. The mission is labeled as “government” and will be sent to low-Earth orbit. (10/20)

Strange Sensor Russia Sent to the ISS Is Baffling US Military Experts (Source: Motherboard)
A Russian spacecraft on a routine supply mission to the International Space Station apparently carried a surprise payload: a secretive sensor that experts said could be related to a controversial military initiative. Progress MS-07 carried a mysterious sensor, which Russian officials described as part of a “one-time scientific experiment.” They otherwise declined to comment on the device’s purpose. (10/20)

XCOR Running Out of Time to Find Investor (Source: Space News)
XCOR Aerospace has only weeks to find a new investor or partner, or else face liquidation, the company’s CEO warns. In an interview, Michael Blum said XCOR has had talks with companies and investor groups interested in a deal, but that those negotiations have been going slowly. XCOR, which suffered a financial setback earlier this year with the loss of a contract, laid off all its employees, hiring a few back as contractors. Blum said the company likely has until early November to reach a deal to rebuild the company or else will likely have to file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy liquidation. (10/20)

Mattis Opposes Space Corps (Source: Space Policy Online)
Secretary of Defense James Mattis has told Congress he opposes a plan to establish a Space Corps. In a letter to House and Senate conferees hashing out differences in their respective defense authorization bills, Mattis said he opposed creating a Space Corps that would result in “additional organizational layers” as a time the Pentagon is seeking to reduce overhead. The House version of the defense bill includes language creating a Space Corps, while the Senate bill does not. Mattis is also opposed to a provision in the Senate bill establishing a Chief Information Warfare Officer. (10/20)

NASA Awards Launches to ULA, SpaceX (Source: NASA)
SpaceX and ULA split a pair of NASA launch contracts Thursday. SpaceX won a $97 million contract for the launch of the Sentinel-6A satellite on a Falcon 9 in November 2020. Sentinel-6A, also known as Jason-CS, is the latest in a series of joint NASA-European missions to study ocean topography. ULA received a $153.8 milion contract for the Atlas 5 launch of Landsat 9 in mid-2021. Landsat 9 will continue the decades-long series of Landsat missions for Earth observation. (10/20)

Underwater Civilizations Might Be Out There (Source: Science)
We may not be hearing from alien civilizations because they’re trapped within icy worlds. In a conference presentation this week, Alan Stern argued that the prevalence of icy ocean worlds in our solar system suggests that most life beyond Earth might live in oceans kilometers below the surface, and thus aren’t transmitting radio waves that would be detected by SETI efforts. For those civilizations, he said, the equivalent of a “space program” might be drilling through that icy crust to reach the surface. (10/20)

Google Moon Shot Stands to Give Industrial 3-D Printing a Boost (Source: Bloomberg)
In what promises to be one small step for space travel, and one giant leap for the next generation of manufacturing, an Israeli startup is planning to land a vehicle on the moon that has crucial parts made using 3-D printing technology.

SpaceIL is among five teams vying for Google Inc.’s $30 million in prize money to get a spacecraft to the moon by the end of March. One of the startup’s suppliers, Zurich-based RUAG Space, advised turning to 3-D printing to manufacture the legs of its unmanned lunar lander. With financial stakes high and a tight deadline, SpaceIL engineers were at first deeply skeptical, according to RUAG executive Franck Mouriaux. They finally acquiesced after a lot of convincing. Click here. (10/21)

Starliner Spacesuit Tops PopSci’s “Most Incredible Aerospace Inventions” List (Source: Popular Science)
Boeing’s Starliner spacesuit topped the Popular Science list of the 10 “most incredible aerospace inventions” list for 2017. The Kratos UTAP-22 Mako, Aireon’s space-based ADS-B and Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser also made the list. (10/17)

Branson Reveals Virgin Galactic’s Latest Launch Plans (Source: NBC)
Richard Branson, the founder of the Virgin Group, which includes spaceflight company Virgin Galactic, on Wednesday said that he expects the company to send its first astronauts into space “in about four months.” This comes after a more optimistic statement by Virgin Galactic President Mike Moses at the International Symposium for Personal and Commercial Spaceflight last week. He said that he hopes for Virgin Galactic “to be in space by the end of this year.” (10/20)

Bezos Presents New Competition for Musk (Source: Quartz)
The BE-4 is designed to lift the huge New Glenn rocket Blue Origin wants to fly in 2020. It is also the leading contender to be the main in engine in a new rocket being built by ULA. But the biggest threat here is to Elon Musk’s SpaceX, which was the last private company to develop and fly a liquid-fueled rocket engine in the US. SpaceX’s low-cost liquid-fueled Merlin engine has powered its workhorse Falcon 9 rocket and reusable first stage, rapidly taking huge swathes of the launch market.

Now, the company is working on larger rockets like the Falcon Heavy, expected to fly for the first time this year, and the BFR, a longer-term vision for planetary exploration that also uses a natural gas engine. If Blue or ULA can get their heavy rocket off the ground first, SpaceX could find itself leap-frogged. The sea change here is that US space firms like SpaceX and Blue Origin are designing and building their own rocket engines, not building designs created by government agencies. (10/20)

Virginia Spaceport Signs Another Customer for Orbital Launches (Source: Daily Press)
Virginia Space has finally signed another customer to use the state-owned spaceport on the Eastern Shore to launch orbital missions. Gov. Terry McAuliffe announced that Tucson-based Vector Space Systems, a nanosatellite launch company, will make three commercial missions to low-Earth orbit from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) at NASA Wallops Flight Facility over the next two years, with an option for five more.

The governor and other state officials heralded the agreement for furthering Virginia’s commercial space ambitions. McAuliffe is a big booster for Virginia as a major hub for the multibillion-dollar commercial launch business. MARS was built at a cost of nearly $150 million to enable Dulles-based space transportation company Orbital ATK to launch resupply missions from Virginia to the International Space Station under a $1.9 billion commercial contract with NASA. Orbital is set to launch its latest mission from MARS next month. (10/20)

Close Encounters With Congress? (Source: NPR)
A congressional candidate in Florida drew a little ridicule this week. Bettina Rodriguez Aguilera, one of the Republicans in the crowded field in Florida’s 27th Congressional District, said in 2009 that she was taken aboard a spaceship when she was 7 years old. She does not mean at Disney World.

Aguilera says she met three beings aboard the ship, two women and a man, all blond and tall, which sounds a little like the Swedish pop group ABBA. She says that their arms were outstretched, like the Christ the Redeemer statue that overlooks Rio, and that the beings have communicated with her ever since, telepathically. (10/21)

City-Size Lunar Lava Tube Could House Future Astronaut Residents (Source: Space.com)
A city-size lava tube has been discovered on the moon, and researchers say it could serve as a shelter for lunar astronauts. This lava tube could protect lunar-living astronauts from hazardous conditions on the moon’s surface, the researchers said. Such a tube could even harbor a lunar colony, they added.

Spacesuits can’t substantially shield astronauts from these dangers over long periods of time, but a lava tube could potentially help protect any space travelers, the researchers said. Lava tubes are channels that form when a lava flow cools and develops a hard crust; this crust then thickens and makes a roof over a still-flowing lava stream, they explained. Once the lava stops flowing, the channel sometimes drains, leaving behind an empty tube. (10/20)

54 Years Since the First Cat in Space (Source: EuroNews)
Fifty-four years ago today, the first cat set paw in space. Félicette was launched from a base in the Sahara desert aboard the rocket Véronique AVI – V47. After a 12 minute flight, including five minutes of weightlessness she returned to earth, safe and sound not far from the launchpad.

Her history is much less well known than that of Laïka who became the first dog in space in 1957. Félicette was chosen from a cohort of around a dozen astrocats after a rigorous session of training and tests including a spin in a centrifuge. Just a few days after the launch an attempt to repeat the experiment ended in tragedy when the lone feline occupant of another rocket died when the craft crashed to earth shortly after takeoff. (10/18)

China, France Plan to Launch First Joint Oceanic Satellite in 2018 (Source: Xinhua)
The first satellite jointly developed by the Chinese and French space agencies will be launched from China in the second half of 2018. The China-French Oceanic Satellite is being tested in a Beijing-based assembly testing center of the China National Space Administration. The 700-kilogram satellite will be primarily used for waves forecast and monitoring, as well as research in floating ice, polar glacier and ocean dynamics. (10/20)

An Apollo Astronaut’s Anger at NASA’s Lost Decades (Source: Popular Mechanics)
Most of the Apollo astronauts, at one time or another, have voiced grievances at how slowly the American manned spaceflight program has advanced. Why wouldn’t they? Since the end of the focused, breakneck race to the moon during the 1960s and early 70s, NASA lost its ambitious mandate to send humans to explore other worlds. Each new presidential administration had a new plan that required scrapping the old one. And America still hasn’t sent astronauts back to the moon, much less set foot on Mars.

Tom Stafford may have more reason to complain than most. He witnessed the rise and fall of American human spaceflight from the inside, and he’s the one who wrote the original plan to use the moon as a stepping-stone to Mars. At 87, Stafford still has a gleam in his eye as he talks about manned spaceflight. But over the years, his plan has been repeatedly picked up and abandoned as administrations changed. The Trump administration and its Space Council is now talking up the moonshot once more. (10/20)

NASA Chooses Not to Tell Congress How Much Deep Space Missions Cost (Source: Ars Technica)
This week, the US Government Accountability Office reported on progress the space agency is making to prepare the Space Launch System rocket, Orion spacecraft, and launch systems at Kennedy Space Center for future missions. NASA is making progress on these complex integration activities, the report finds, but the space agency has a long ways to go to make a test flight in late 2019 or early 2020.

One surprise in the report is that NASA still has not provided Congress (or anyone else) with cost estimates for the first crewed mission of the SLS rocket and Orion spacecraft, which could occur in 2023 or later. This “Exploration Mission 2,” which would entail flying a crew of four into deep space and possibly delivering the first component of a space station into lunar orbit, would mark the first human mission after 12 years of development of the rocket and nearly two decades of work on Orion. (10/20)

Bridenstine Wins a Democrat’s Support for NASA’s Top Job (Source: Orlando Sentinel)
Jim Bridenstine has been nominated to lead NASA as its 13th administrator. It is my honor to support his nomination. NASA’s mission is to go where no one has gone before, explore the unknown, and reveal the secrets of the universe for the benefit of America and the world.

Jim Bridenstine is well-equipped to lead NASA as it develops return missions to the moon, sends astronauts to Mars, explores distant planets and their moons, looks into deep space from the Hubble and soon-to-be launched James Webb Space Telescopes, and assists with understanding the sun and both short- and long-term weather patterns.

I serve with Bridenstine on the House Science, Space and Technology Committee. My first real interaction with him occurred a number of years ago when he visited Colorado to meet with scientists, engineers and technicians from a number of our universities, national laboratories and aerospace companies. I found him to be a good listener and well adept at understanding a lot of technical jargon. (10/20)


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