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


CIMON Robot Gets Mixed Results in ISS Testing

The first tests of a robot with AI on the ISS left something to be desired. CIMON, the Crew Interactive Mobile Companion, was delivered to the ISS earlier this year and was recently put through its paces by ESA astronaut Alexander Gerst. CIMON, though, appeared to get hung up after playing music, fixated on the music rather than other commands from Gerst. “Don’t be so mean, please,” it told Gerst at one point. IBM and Airbus, which developed CIMON, considered the test a success despite those issues. (12/3)

Boeing Tapped by Air Force for Jam-Resistant Satellite Comms Terminals(Source: Space Daily)
Boeing has been awarded $383.4 million from the U.S. Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center for the Protected Tactical Enterprise Service tactical satellite communications system. The contract, announced Monday by the Department of Defense, will provide ground satellite communications designed to be highly resistant to jamming and signals interception by enemy forces. Air Force fiscal 2018 and 2019 research, development, test and evaluation funding of $17.2 million has been obligated at the time of award. (11/27)

Europa Mission Could Forego SLS for Falcon Heavy (Source: Ars Technica)
The biggest question looming over Clipper has been the rocket that will launch it to Jupiter. Culberson has stipulated in his budget bills that the Clipper must launch on NASA’s Space Launch System rocket, which remains under development and is unlikely to fly for the first time before 2020 or 2021. (At present, the Clipper mission is slotted for a July 2023 launch.) This rocket mandate has been a political expediency, to win support from Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby.

Europa planners had worked with NASA’s Launch Services Program and SpaceX. All of the rockets available for launch today, including SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy, require multiple gravity assists to reach Jupiter, because they just could not provide Clipper the change in velocity needed to go directly to Jupiter. But now the addition of a Star 48 “kick stage” to the Falcon Heavy rocket would provide an extra boost of energy after the rocket’s upper stage had fired. With this solid rocket motor kick stage, Clipper would need just a single Earth gravity assist and would not have to go into the inner Solar System for a Venus flyby. (12/3)

Asteroid-Sampling Mission Zeroes In on Tiny Space Rock (Source: Nature)
For the second time this year, a spacecraft is about to partner with an asteroid in an intimate dance. In June, the Japanese mission Hayabusa2 arrived at the 1-kilometre-wide asteroid Ryugu, from whose dusty surface it aims to scoop a sample early next year. On 3 December, the NASA spacecraft OSIRIS-REx will reach an even tinier space rock, named Bennu, in pursuit of the same goal.

OSIRIS-REx will spend the next few weeks buzzing over Bennu’s poles and equator, gathering information to estimate its mass. On 31 December the probe will move even closer to its target — and the 500-meter-wide, diamond-shaped Bennu will become one of the smallest planetary objects ever orbited by a spacecraft. In July 2020, OSIRIS-REx will lower itself all the way to Bennu’s surface, stick out a robotic arm and suction up at least 60 grams of asteroid dirt to bring home. If the dirt arrives on Earth in 2023 as planned, it will be the largest planetary sample retrieved since the last Apollo astronauts departed the Moon in 1972. (11/29)

Cabana: How We’re Going Back to the Moon (Source: Florida Today)
It’s time to go back to the moon. Why? Because the moon is the first small step in exploring Mars and beyond. What we learn on the moon is essential to the future of space exploration. The moon provides an opportunity to test new tools, instruments and equipment that could be used on Mars. That includes human habitats, life support systems, and technologies and practices that could help us build a permanent self-sustaining presence off Earth.

Kennedy Space Center is the world’s preeminent launch complex for government and commercial access to space, enabling the world to explore and work in space. Missions to and beyond the moon will launch from the Space Coast. As a multi-user spaceport, Kennedy offers the infrastructure and services to accommodate a myriad of space industry partners. Click here. (11/30)

All Systems Go as Russia’s Soyuz Aims to Erase Space Failures (Source: BBC)
Soyuz launch number 138 should be as routine as it gets for space flight. The next crew are due to lift off on Monday heading for the International Space Station (ISS) from the same launch pad Yury Gagarin used in 1961 on his historic first flight into orbit. But two months ago an accident on the last Soyuz launch sent the Russian and American astronauts hurtling back to Earth.

Shortly before that, the crew on the ISS had discovered a mysterious hole – located after air pressure on the Station began to drop, and successfully plugged. Both incidents have raised questions about the state of Russia’s space industry – once the great pride of a Superpower – and the future of cosmic co-operation with the US.

Investigators have pinned the blame for the failed launch on a faulty sensor on the Soyuz. The head of Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, told the BBC it was damaged during assembly when “two cranes collided”. “Our task is to take steps to ensure that doesn’t happen again,” said Dmitry Rogozin. He and his NASA counterparts say they are confident in the coming mission. (12/1)

Brexit: UK to Build Own Satellite System After May Rules Out Using EU’s Galileo Project (Source: Sky News)
The UK must build its own satellite system after Theresa May confirmed the country will not be involved in the EU’s Galileo project post-Brexit. The prime minister said Britain would explore other options to build its own system that can guide military drones, run energy networks and provide essential services for civilian smart phones.

Experts have predicted it will cost an estimated £3bn to £5bn, and it is unclear whether the UK will get back the £1.2bn it sunk into the Galileo project. The UK will also work with the US to continue accessing its GPS system. Sky News reported on Thursday that government plans to build Britain’s own system could hit the buffers because other countries have already claimed signal space. (12/1)

Will Canada Boldly Join the Next-Generation Space Station Project? (Source: Globe and Mail)
Members of Canada’s space community including academic and business leaders are currently engaged in an urgent dialogue that’s highlighting how the window may be closing on Canada’s opportunity to play a leadership role in the development of the global space economy, as well as the next steps in the exploration of space.

The impetus for this timely conversation is the nascent Lunar Gateway, an international project being co-ordinated by NASA that would empower human expansion across the solar system. In collaboration with public and private partners, the Lunar Gateway imagines the design and construction of a small station that would be sent into orbit around the moon within the next decade. From there, astronauts would build and test systems to advance lunar exploration, conduct a host of deep-space experiments, enhance satellite communications and stage future missions to more distant destinations including Mars. (12/1)

NASA Program to Launch Astronauts to Space Station Facing Delays But 2019 Still On Target (Source: USA Today)
NASA Administrator James Bridenstine said he still expects astronauts will fly from U.S. soil to the International Space Station by the end of next year even though an uncrewed test flight scheduled for Jan. 7 now could slip into the spring.

Bridenstine’s acknowledgment that January is a “very low probability” window is the first time the agency has publicly cast doubt on the timing of the scheduled launch from Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The test flight of the SpaceX rocket and capsule is a key step in NASA’s efforts to resume U.S. transport to Earth’s orbit nearly a decade after the space shuttle was mothballed.

The administrator attributed the delay to challenges with several components, including landing parachutes. Some of those systems could be tested without flying them on the initial flight. It’s a matter of determining “what configuration are we willing to accept as an agency and are we willing to waive certain items (and) how do we test those items,” Bridenstine told reporters at NASA headquarters. (12/1)

Private Companies Building a Spaceport in Japan (Source: Ars Technica)
All Nippon Airways operator ANA Holdings and trading house Marubeni will set up a spaceport in Japan as early as 2021, Nikkei reports. The launch site will be used for private space travel and feature 3km runways for craft that take off horizontally like airplanes. A newly formed company named “Spaceport Japan” is advancing the project.

No site yet … The company has not chosen a site yet. Overall, Spaceport Japan apparently wants to secure a foothold in the international space-business race by building Asia’s first space travel hub for private spacecraft launched from airplanes, such as Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity. It is not known whether Spaceport Japan has contracted with any space-tourism companies. (11/30)

European Space Telescope Slated For 2019 Launch (Source: Forbes)
By this time next year, CHEOPS will be in space. The new telescope’s launch window—now official—lasts a month, from October 15 to November 14, 2019. Sometime during those 31 days, CHEOPS will blast off on a Soyuz rocket from the spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana, a coastal town on the Atlantic side of South America.

The probe, a product of the European Space Agency, will orbit the Earth at 435 miles up (700 kilometers). Unlike NASA’s TESS spacecraft—or its predecessor, Kepler—CHEOPS is not a planet hunter. “That’s not the goal,” says Willy Benz, professor of astrophysics at the University of Bern in Switzerland. “We’re not trying to find hundreds or thousands of new planets.” (11/30)

Virgin Galactic to Launch Crewed Flights to Space Out of Spaceport America(Source: KVIA)
Virgin Galactic, the main tenant at Spaceport America in New Mexico, may be flying humans into space before Christmas. The spaceport sits north of Las Cruces and has seen hundreds of vertical launches but no commercial flights yet from Virgin Galactic. The remaining 2018 flights will be crewed, but it won’t be tourists yet. They’re still moving forward with their testing phases before commercial flights take off from Spaceport America.

Sir Richard Branson, owner of Virgin Galactic, said Friday morning the company was on track to send humans to space, but it will still be test pilots running operations out of the Mojave Spaceport in California. “They’ll finish their performance flights, their reliability flights out of Mojave, they’ll finish all their testing they need to do there and get their certification from the FAA to take humans into space,” said Dan Hicks, the Spaceport America CEO. (11/30)

Space Force Proposal Could Create a Broader Military Department for Both Air and Space (Source: Space News)
During a White House meeting on Thursday, Pentagon and administration officials discussed the possibility of establishing a Space Force under a larger Department of the Air and Space Force. A DoD spokesman confirmed to SpaceNews that a team of Pentagon officials led by Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan floated this idea to Vice President Mike Pence, who leads the administration’s space reorganization efforts.

Shanahan is overseeing the drafting of a legislative proposal that will be submitted to the White House in the coming weeks and, once approved, will be sent to Capitol Hill with the president’s budget request for fiscal year 2020. The Space Force under this proposed organization would not include the National Reconnaissance Office or any other element of the intelligence community.

The president has been insistent that a Space Force should be a completely independent military department. A draft policy directive has been in the works for weeks. According a Nov. 19 version of the policy, the Pentagon would be directed to propose a Space Force as a separate military branch with its own civilian leadership. The White House said the Nov. 19 draft is “subject to change, and the Space Council continues to work with the departments and agencies responsible for carrying out President Trump’s direction to establish the U.S. Space Force as a sixth armed service.” (11/30)

Space Force Idea Lacks Public Support, Survey Reveals (Source: Space News)
President Donald Trump’s calls for a new military branch for space win loud cheers at his political rallies. But the American public at large is not sold on the idea, according to a new survey by the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute. The survey shows a deep partisan divide over the Space Force and other national security issues. “President Trump’s proposal to create a new U.S. Space Force lacks broad public support,” the foundation reported. “Americans are split down the middle on the idea, with Republicans favoring the idea over Democrats by 2:1.” (11/30)

There’s Drug-Resistant Bacteria in the Space Toilets, Guys (Source: Space.com)
Cleaning a toilet in space is no more fun than cleaning one on Earth, but it can lead to more interesting surprises. Case in point: NASA scientists have discovered four previously unknown strains of antibiotic-resistant bacteria lurking in the loos aboard the International Space Station (ISS). In a new study published Nov. 23 in the journal BMC Microbiology, a team led by scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California analyzed several bacterial samples collected from around the ISS in 2015.

That included four samples from the lavatory’s waste and hygiene compartment. In these four space-toilet samples, plus one sample taken from the foot platform of a piece of resistance-training exercise equipment, the researchers identified five previously unknown strains of Enterobacter bacteria — a genus with high resistance to antibiotics that often infects hospital patients who have compromised immune systems. (11/30)


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