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


Shake, Shudder and Shout: Taking Orion to the Brink

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The second uncrewed test flight of NASA’s Orion, called Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1), is the first time the Orion spacecraft and the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket will undergo an integrated launch beyond the Moon. During launch, the rocket engines and solid rocket boosters ignite creating 8.8 million pounds of thrust, producing deafening sound and vibration that shakes the spacecraft. It’s this intense environment that Orion engineers have studied and worked to mitigate when designing the spacecraft. Before Orion flies on EM-1, the limits of the spacecraft’s structures are being taken to the brink in a series of tests at our facility near Denver.

An Orion test structure, called the structural test article (STA), was built and is undergoing punishing tests throughout the year that will deliberately take the vehicle’s structure to the edge of its design. The tests will simulate the raucous launch and harsh space environment throughout the three-week EM-1 mission, that physically affect the structures of the Orion spacecraft. While we test the STA in Denver the “flight” Orion for the EM-1 mission is nearly complete and is being assembled at the Cape Canaveral Spaceport. (5/31)

Dawn Will Enter Lowest Ever Orbit Around Ceres (Source: SpaceFlight Insider)
NASA’s Dawn spacecraft has begun maneuvers that should bring it to its lowest and final orbit around dwarf planet Ceres. The probe’s destination is less than 30 miles (50 km) above Ceres’s surface, which is ten times closer than its previous closest orbit. From there, it is planned to have Dawn gather gamma ray and neutron spectra that should help scientists better understand chemical changes in the surface’s uppermost layer as well as obtain detailed, high-resolution images.

From this vantage point, scientists will have the opportunity to closely study specific sites of interest, such as Occator Crater, home to highly reflective salt deposits similar to those seen on Earth. By studying the crater and the area surrounding it, which together are known as a “geological unit,” researchers hope to better understand the site’s complex geology. Mission engineers hope to fly low over Occator Crater in each orbit.

Accomplishing this requires difficult maneuvers because Dawn’s Gamma Ray and Neutron Detector (GRaND) will need to fly over the region 20 times to record enough of the site’s faint nuclear radiation. (6/2)

Where Does Outer Space Start? (Source: Popular Science)
Where’s the edge of space? What seems like a simple question has an answer with more layers than the Earth’s atmosphere. You might expect that space begins where the atmosphere ends, and that could be true. But, as it turns out, no one can tell exactly where that point is. And the majority of scientists look much closer to home, placing the edge of space well within the bounds of the atmosphere.

The most widely accepted definition of the “edge of space” is 100 kilometers above the Earth’s surface (approximately 62 miles, though the number is often rounded down to 60). That altitude is what’s known as the Kármán Line, named for Hungarian physicist and engineer Theodore von Kármán, who determined that aeronautics would no longer work at that altitude. That is to say, as Paul Newman, Chief Scientist for Earth Sciences at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, explains, “The Kármán line is defined as the altitude where you can’t fly fast enough to generate lift for an aircraft.”

Aside from aeronautics, there’s another difference above and below the Kármán Line. “Below 100 kilometers, gases are well mixed by turbulent motions. Hence, nitrogen is about 78%, and oxygen is about 21%,” explains Newman. “Above 100 kilometers, the gases begin to diffusively separate because of gravity. We refer to this altitude of separation as the homopause, since everything below is homogeneously mixed.” (6/1)

SpaceX Simplified: A Quick Guide to Elon Musk’s Space Company (Source: C/Net)
SpaceX, the rocket company founded by tech billionaire Elon Musk, is just as likely to grab headlines as NASA these days. But if you’re having a hard time keeping up with SpaceX’s plans to reshape the spaceflight industry, replace international flights with orbital rocket launches, create a global broadband network and build a huge human settlement on Mars, don’t worry: We created this SpaceX primer so you can get up to speed fast. Click here. (6/1)

Greening the Future of Outer Space (Source: Smithsonian)
The Outer Space Treaty—written in 1967 and signed by all the major world powers—is the closest thing we have to a constitution for space. For a document conceived before the moon landing, it’s remarkably forward-looking: it declares “celestial bodies” like the moon and asteroids off-limits for private development and requires countries authorize and continually supervise companies’ activities in space. It also says that space exploration should be carried out for the benefit of all peoples, and it explicitly prohibits weapons of mass destruction in space.

But even with that impressive scope of vision, the treaty’s authors could never have imagined where we’d be now. Currently there are 1,738 man-made satellites in orbit around our planet. As they become more affordable to build and launch—think of them as the drones of low Earth orbit—they’ll no doubt proliferate and vie for valuable real estate there with space stations, space tourists, space colonists, space miners, military spacecraft, and thousands of derelict satellites and other immobile debris. Click here. (6/1)

Durian in Space: Thailand to Send Smelly Fruit Into Orbit (Source: BBC)
Imagine being trapped in a spaceship with the world’s smelliest fruit. Thailand’s space research agency has just announced plans to send durian to space by July, as part of a project to produce Thai food suitable for future space travel. The baked durian will stay in space for five minutes before coming back to Earth, where scientists will see if it has undergone any textural changes.

Durian, known for its strong, stinky smell, is native to South East Asia. According to local media reports, the fruit will be launched into space via a rocket. “Our main goal is to eventually bring Thai food up to space to be consumed by astronauts,” a spokesman for the Geo-Informatics and Space Technology Development Agency (GISTDA) told the BBC.

“For a start, we chose durian, which is the king of fruits in Thailand. We’d like to send [it] to the atmosphere at the same level that astronauts live and bring them back to analyse their texture for any changes.” The spokesman said that if the project worked, the agency could “bring other Thai food that is well known, like pad Thai or mango sticky rice, up to space for more tests”. (6/2)

For Astronaut Safety NASA Should Look to Colorado (Source: Denver Post)
Colorado doesn’t always come to mind when people think of America’s space legacy. After all, no one ever said, “Denver, we have a problem.” Meanwhile, our researchers and aerospace manufacturers are quietly shaping the state’s economy, America’s space future, and astronaut safety.

A key driver for cutting-edge space research in Colorado is centered around our universities. There are twenty former NASA astronauts affiliated with the University of Colorado and two are currently on staff. This commitment to space education explains why CU receives more NASA research funding than any other public university. And just down the road at the U.S. Air Force Academy you will find the nation’s 2nd ranked aerospace program.

Colorado also boasts the country’s 2nd largest aerospace economy, with nearly 190,000 space related jobs which puts us number one in the nation per capita. Employees from eight of the country’s top aerospace manufacturers are hard at work right here in Colorado preparing NASA for 21st century spaceflight. (6/2)

A Neutron Star Crash May Have Spawned a Black Hole (Source: Science News)
The first observed smashup of two stellar remnants known as neutron stars probably forged the least massive black hole yet discovered. This cosmic collision, observed in August 2017, took the astronomical community by storm and offered insights into the origins of precious metals and the mysterious dark energy that fuels the expansion of the universe. Ever since, astronomers have wondered what became of the two neutron stars once they’d merged.

This enigmatic amalgamation of dead stars — weighing about 2.7 times the mass of the sun — was suspected to be either a neutron star heftier than any yet discovered or the most lightweight black hole. The previous record-holder for lightest black hole was about four solar masses, says study coauthor David Pooley, a physicist at Trinity University in San Antonio.

Pooley and colleagues analyzed data collected by NASA’s Chandra X-ray space telescope several months after gravitational wave detectors first identified the neutron star collision. If the pair of neutron stars united to form an even more massive dead star, then researchers would expect that mega-neutron star to be surrounded by a bright shell of high-energy particles — similar to the Crab Nebula, but much brighter. (6/1)

China Launches New Earth Observation Satellite (Source: Xinhua)
China on Saturday launched a new Earth observation satellite, Gaofen-6, which will be mainly used in agricultural resources research and disaster monitoring. The Gaofen-6 was launched on a Long March-2D rocket at 12:13 p.m. Beijing Time from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwest China. A scientific experiment satellite named Luojia-1 was sent into space at the same time.

It was the 276th mission of the Long March rocket series. Weighing 1,064 kg and with a designed life of eight years, Gaofen-6 has a similar function to that of Gaofen-1 satellite, but with better cameras and its high-resolution images can cover a large area of the Earth, according to the State Administration of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defense. (6/2)

USAF Space Launch Squadrons Change Leadership (Source: AFSPC)
Lt. Col. Waylon Mitchell, commander of the 5th Space Launch Squadron (SLS) assumes command of the 45th Launch Support Squadron (LCSS) May 31 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, accepting the command from Lt. Col. Kathryn Cantu. The change of command ceremony is one of many steps the 45th Space Wing is taking to revitalize the squadron. In time, the 45th LCSS will inactivate and merge with the 5th SLS, under Mitchell, their dual-hatted commander.

This ceremony cements the 45th Space Wing’s role as a forerunner in the race for heightened innovation, efficiency and overall squadron revitalization – as 45th Space Wing commander Brig. Gen. Wayne Monteith continues to lead the wing towards the vision of a cohesive, revitalized work force. (5/31)

Mysterious Neutrino Surplus Hints at the Existence of New Particles (Source: Science News)
Pip-squeak particles called neutrinos are dishing out more than scientists had bargained for. A particle detector has spotted a puzzling abundance of the lightweight subatomic particles and their antimatter partners, antineutrinos, physicists report. The finding mirrors a neutrino excess found more than two decades ago. And that match has researchers wondering if a new type of particle called a sterile neutrino — one even more shadowy than the famously elusive ordinary neutrinos — might be at large.

Such a particle, if it exists, would transform the foundations of particle physics and could help solve cosmic puzzles like the existence of dark matter, an unidentified inert substance that makes up the preponderance of the matter in the universe. (6/1)

Aliens Are Real, But Humans Will Probably Kill Them All, New Paper Says (Source: Space.com)
If you’ve ever looked up into the unfathomable night sky and wondered, “Are we alone?” then you are not alone. About Alexander Berezin, a theoretical physicist at the National Research University of Electronic Technology in Russia, has proposed a new answer to Fermi’s paradox — but he doesn’t think you’re going to like it. Because, if Berezin’s hypothesis is correct, it could mean a future for humanity that’s “even worse than extinction.”

“What if,” Berezin wrote in a new paper posted March 27 to the preprint journal arxiv.org,”the first life that reaches interstellar travel capability necessarily eradicates all competition to fuel its own expansion?” In other words, could humanity’s quest to discover intelligent life be directly responsible for obliterating that life outright? What if we are, unwittingly, the universe’s bad guys? (6/1)

What’s Hiding in the Outer Solar System? (Source: Popular Science)
As our understanding of the outer solar system has grown, we’re facing new questions. And it’s renewing talks about planets past Neptune. And not Pluto, Eris, Makemake, or the other fascinating and dynamic dwarf planets that we’ve already identified—but undiscovered objects possibly Mars-sized or larger. In some cases, those dwarf planets may be pointing the way to bigger things—like previously undiscovered planets.

In 2003, astronomers Mike Brown, Chad Trujillo, and David Rabinowitz announced the discovery of the object Sedna. Sedna’s orbit seemed to extend out as far as 970 times the Sun-Earth distance (known as an astronomical unit or AU) before coming back in for a close approach at 76 AU. Sedna’s entire circuit around the Sun is expected to take 11,000 years.

Sedna seemed weird. But the discovery of 2012 VP113 began to complicate things. That object, announced in 2014, was out even further than Sedna. But it shared a lot of commonalities—it also had a long, strange orbit, tilted over the plane of the solar system. And there were other objects like this, a group whose closest approach to the Sun was no closer than 30 AU and whose farthest point was out past 250 AU. Click here. (5/31)

NASA CubeSats Steer Toward Mars (Source: NASA JPL)
NASA has achieved a first for the class of tiny spacecraft known as CubeSats, which are opening new access to space. Over the past week, two CubeSats called MarCO-A and MarCO-B have been firing their propulsion systems to guide themselves toward Mars. This process, called a trajectory correction maneuver, allows a spacecraft to refine its path to Mars following launch. Both CubeSats successfully completed this maneuver; NASA’s InSight spacecraft just completed the same process on May 22.

The pair of CubeSats that make up the Mars Cube One (MarCO) mission both launched on May 5, along with the InSight lander, which is headed toward a Nov. 26 touchdown on the Red Planet. They were designed to trail InSight on the way to Mars, aiming to relay back data about InSight as it enters the planet’s atmosphere and attempts to land. The MarCOs were never intended to collect any science data; instead, they are a test of miniaturized communication and navigation technology that can blaze a path for future CubeSats sent to other planets. (6/1)

Satellites Sweeping Over Earth are Turned Into Sound at NASA Pavilion (Source: Washington Post)
You may not give them any thought, but NASA satellites are constantly sweeping overhead, their equipment trained on the planet below. As they move, they observe Earth’s weather, oceans, atmosphere and more. The data they beam back to Earth is used to predict weather, understand climate change and track environmental changes.

Inside a giant aluminum shell on the grounds of the library near Pasadena, Calif., the movements of the spacecraft create an otherworldly soundscape. NASA’s Orbit Pavilion, open through September 2019, turns research activities into sound. Go inside the nautilus-shaped sculpture and you’ll hear sounds assigned to different Earth science satellites and the International Space Station as each of them crosses over.

Each NASA instrument has been given a sound that represents its mission, such as crashing waves and desert winds. As the satellite moves overhead, its trajectory is reflected through 28 surround-sound speakers. The experience recruits listeners’ ears and minds, reminding them spacecraft are always tracking Earth. Nineteen satellites and the ISS — which makes 16 rotations around Earth each day — are part of the mix. (6/2)


Orbital ATK Looks Ahead to Commercial Market for Antares (Source: NasaSpaceFlight.com)
While Antares has thus far only exclusively launched Cygnus crafts to the International Space Station, Orbital ATK will offer the vehicle on the commercial market and notes that Antares has been on-ramp is part of NASA’s Launch Services II contract. “We’re on-ramped to the NASA Launch Services II contract, and that basically puts us on an approved bidders list and enables us to bid on launches that NASA has in the future.  And so we are planning to look at opportunities that may come along and bid on them,” noted Mr. Eberly.

Moreover, Orbital ATK sees no overlap or competition between the types of missions suited for Antares and those for the upcoming OmegA rocket. “OmegA is an EELV-class rocket, an intermediate to heavy lift vehicle.  It’s for an Air Force customer, and while they are looking to enter the commercial market as well and NASA civil certainly, primarily OmegA is an EELV-sized and classed rocket,” said Mr. Eberly. “Antares is a medium-class rocket, and we have our niche here on CRS.  And so, in the near term, we’re focused on doing Antares launches and trying to win new business while OmegA is trying to get developed.” (6/1)

White House Policy Seeks Fewer Lawyers, More Engineers at Space Companies (Source: Ars Technica)
The new directive formalizes recommendations made in February at the second meeting of the National Space Council to reform the regulatory environment. In short, the White House wants to cut paperwork for commercial companies launching rockets and flying satellites in Earth orbit. As one official said, the White House would like these companies to be able to hire more engineers and fewer lawyers.

The proposed reforms, which should emerge as “final” rules early next year, concern several areas according to the White House. For rocket companies, Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao will devise a new regulatory system for managing launch and re-entry activity, including the possibility of requiring just a single license for all types of commercial space flight launch and re-entry operations, and replacing prescriptive requirements in the process with performance-based criteria. “What we basically want to see is faster turnaround for launch licences,” a White House official said. (5/24)

Roscosmos May Curb Russia’s Space Program Due to Lack of Funds (Source: Space Daily)
The Russian federal space program might face cuts as the Roscosmos state corporation is likely to suffer funding shortages amounting to 150 billion rubles (almost $2.4 billion) in the next three years, a source in the industry told Sputnik.

“The shortages of budgetary funds planned for allocation to Roscosmos from the previous parameters for the next three years is about 150 billion rubles … the lack of funds has already become a reason of delays in the development of interplanetary projects, slowing down construction of the second stage of the Vostochny Cosmodrome and the development of new rocket and space equipment,” the source said.

The federal program for the development of Russian space launch centers for the period of 2017-2025 in 2019 it may receive 17 billion rubles less that it was initially planned, while in 2020 it may see a reduction of funding by 52 billion rubles and in 2021 – 75 billion less, according to the source. Due to the funding shortages, the program will most likely be reviewed in the coming months, the source noted. (5/31)

Commercial Satellite Launch Service Market to Grow Strongly Through 2024 (Source: Space Daily)
According to a new research report by the market research and strategy consulting firm, Global Market Insights, Inc, the Commercial Satellite Launch Service Market to hit $7 billion by 2024. Increasing usage of communication data-based services and GPS systems is driving the commercial satellite launch service market size over the forecast period.

These services are adopted by various sectors such as Automotive, Electronics, Military, IT, among others. Increasing number of vehicles integrated with built-in navigation units will contribute majorly for launching additional satellites. Additionally, Oil and Gas companies across the globe uses vehicle tracking systems for their official vehicles and tankers to locate their vehicles and maintain transparency. (6/1)

Space Traffic Management – Oversight, Licensing And Enforcement (Source: Space Daily)
The government is about to impose, for the first time, space traffic management policies on the satellite industry. The initial result will be shock and angst among all satellite operators. Once we have a policy, next comes a set of regulations. Then there will be government oversight, licensing and enforcement. All this will surely result in higher costs, restrictive orbit selection, additional avionics and mandatory self-removal at end-of-life. In addition, there will be requirements for active satellite separation at all times.

Regulations can apply only to active satellites. But, what about the other 1014 uncontrolled objects that occupy the same space? This is a big problem. No one wants to tackle the debris population. In fact, no one wants pay for it. If this problem is not addressed, it is conceivable that the government may create a wonderfully controlled space traffic environment in the middle of an unmitigated disaster. So, maybe we should solve the debris problem first. (6/1)

US Aerospace/Defense Firms are At Risk of Losing Their Edge to New Rivals (Source: Defense News)
Despite a growing defense budget, U.S. defense and aerospace companies are at risk to be superseded by emerging competitors, a new PwC sector trends report cautions. Not only are established companies receiving domestic pressure from emerging innovators like Elon Musk’s SpaceX, but also Chinese and Russian companies backed by state funding. The PwC report notes “China is making a big push to develop military artificial intelligence technologies, and China and Russia are developing sophisticated air-to-air missile systems that use advanced imagery and sensors to thwart enemy intrusions before they pierce the skies.”

The defense sectors reluctance to take risks by investing their own funds in research and development also is a major impediment. Despite their large budgets, aerospace and defense companies spend less on R&D than nearly every other industry.

That’s going to have to change if these firms want to remain competitive. PwC’s report recommends companies “adopt a more rigorous and less risk-averse approach to evaluating and making strategic investment choices (for example, product development, technology innovation, and R&D) that yield long-term value. Accept uncertainty as part of the normal course of business; view it as an opportunity, not a danger.” (6/1)

SpaceX Recovers Fairings From Iridium Launch After Pacific Splashdown (Source: Teslarati)
SpaceX has released the first high-quality photos of Falcon 9’s payload fairing recovery hardware in action, showing the massive carbon fiber-aluminum halves gliding by parafoil less than a rocket-length away from recovery vessel Mr. Steven’s massive net. If anything, these photos demonstrate just how close SpaceX is – both literally and figuratively – to successfully catching payload fairings out of the air, the final keystone of fairing reuse.

Per the extraordinarily minimalist appearance of each half’s parafoil recovery hardware and the lack of any clear control mechanism, it’s very likely that SpaceX has sided with an in-canopy system of actuators tasked with subtly warping the parafoil, comparable in functionality to a crude replica of a bird’s wing. After approximately a year of trying, SpaceX appears to be rounding the very last corner to fairing recovery and reuse, perhaps avoiding the need for a series of drop-and-catch tests hinted at recently by Elon Musk.

Once the massive 800-kilogram components can be captured in flight by Mr. Steven, it should be a fairly easy for SpaceX to move from recovery to reuse, potentially saving as much as 10% ($6m) of the cost of each Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy launch. Perhaps even more importantly, fairing reuse would remove some of the pressure placed on SpaceX’s composite production floor, which currently must support the fabrication of dozens of fairing halves, booster interstages, payload adapters, Falcon Heavy nose cones, and much more, including smaller subassemblies required for both Crew and Cargo Dragons. Click here. (5/31)

It’s Teen Rocket Science! Georgia Team Wins National Fly-Off (Source: Space.com)
High school students from Georgia’s high-flying, egg-toting rocket team will soon represent the U.S. in an international competition. On May 12, the Creekview High School aeronautics team won first place at the National Fly-Off for the Team America Rocketry Challenge. The students, who are 17 and 18, designed and built their own rocket which they used to compete against teams from across the country. The Georgia team, sponsored by Raytheon, will compete on the international stage against other national winners in London on July 19-20. (5/31)

Engineers Aim for the Stars with New Rocket Engine (Source: Phys.org)
A ‘self-eating’ rocket engine which could place small satellites in orbit more easily and more affordably is under development at universities in Scotland and Ukraine. Engineers have built, fired, and for the first time throttled up and down an ‘autophage’ engine which could change how small satellites are sent into space.

Today, most rockets use tanks to store their propellant as they climb, and the weight of the tanks is usually many times greater than the weight of the useful payload. This reduces the efficiency of the launch vehicle, and also contributes to the problem of space debris. However, a launch vehicle powered by an autophage engine would consume its own structure during ascent, so more cargo capacity could be freed-up and less debris would enter orbit.

The autophage engine consumes a propellant rod which has solid fuel on the outside and oxidizer on the inside. The solid fuel is a strong plastic, such as polyethylene, so the rod is effectively a pipe full of powdered oxidizer. By driving the rod into a hot engine, the fuel and oxidizer can be vaporized into gases that flow into the combustion chamber. This produces thrust, as well as the heat required to vaporize the next section of propellant. (5/24)

Students Meet Challenge of NASA’s 9th Annual Robotic Mining Competition at KSC (Source: NASA)
More than 40 one-of-a-kind robots mined in simulated regolith, called BP-1, during NASA’s 9th Annual Robotic Mining Competition (RMC), May 14-18, at the agency’s KSC Visitor Complex in Florida. Undergraduate and graduate students from simulant (gravel) buried at least a foot below the surface and deposit it into the collector bin to be weighed. (6/1)



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