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  1. Future Astronauts Could Enjoy Fresh Vegetables From an Autonomous Orbital Greenhouse If humanity is going to become a spare-faring and interplanetary species, one of the most important things will be the ability of astronauts to see to their needs independently. Relying on regular shipments of supplies from Earth is not only inelegant; it’s also impractical and very expensive. For this reason, scientists are working to create technologies that would allow astronauts to provide for their own food, water, and breathable air. To this end, a team of researchers from Tomsk Polytechnic University in central Russia – along with scientists from other universities and research institutes in the region – recently developed a prototype for an orbital greenhouse. Known as the Orbital Biological Automatic Module, this device allows plants to be grown and cultivated in space and could be heading to the International Space Station (ISS) in the coming years. Since the beginning of the Space Age, numerous experiments have been conducted that demonstrated how plants can be cultivated under microgravity conditions. However, these studies were carried out using greenhouses located in the living compartments of orbital stations and involved significant limitations in terms of technology and space. Plants cultivated in the TPU autonomous greenhouse. For this reason, a research team from TPU began working to scale and improve the technologies necessary for cultivating important agricultural crops. The project team includes additional researchers from Tomsk State University (TSU), Tomsk State University of Control Systems and Radioelectronics (TUSUR), the Institute of Petroleum Chemistry and the Siberian Research Institute of Agriculture and Peat. As Aleksei Yakovlev, head of the TPU School of Advanced Manufacturing Technologies, explained in a TPU News release: The smart greenhouse project will incorporate technologies developed at TPU, which includes smart lighting that will accelerate plant growth, specialized hydroponics, automated irrigation, and harvesting solutions. At present, TPU is constructing a new testing ground so they can expand production on the smart greenhouse. The prototype greenhouse is being designed to provide astronauts with a continuous vegetarian diet. “In Tomsk, we will conduct interdisciplinary studies and solve applied problems in the field of agrobiophotonics,” said Yakovlev. “At the same time, the research team includes scientists from Tomsk, Moscow, Vladivostok, and international partners from the Netherlands specializing in climate complexes including one from Wageningen University.” In the end, Yakovlev and his colleagues envision an autonomous module that would be capable of supplying food for astronauts and potentially even docking with the ISS. They also indicated that the module would contain a cultivation area measuring 30 m² (~320 ft²) and that it would be cylindrical in shape. As Yakolev indicated, this would allow the module to be spun up to simulate different gravity conditions: These include the gravity conditions that are present on the Moon and Mars, which experience the equivalent of about 16.5% and 38% Earth gravity (0.1654 g and 0.3794 g), respectively. At present, it is unknown how well plants can grow on either body and research to that effect is still in its infancy. Hence, the information provided by this module could prove very useful if and when plans for a lunar and/or Martian colony are realized. Dwarf wheat growing in the Advanced Plant Habitat. The design and engineering that goes into the module will also take into account the kinds of conditions that are present in space, such as solar and cosmic radiation and extremes in temperature. Beyond that, the module will investigate what kinds of crops grow well in orbit. Said Yakovlev: Three TPU experiments were recently approved for transport to the ISS and will be implemented later this year. They include a device capable of 3D printing composite materials, housings for a swarm of satellites, and a multilayer nanocomposite coating that will be applied to the ISS portholes to protect against micrometeoroid impacts (Peresvet). Their implementation will begin later this year and in 2021. Source
  2. Some days, you might feel like a pretty substantial person. Maybe you have a lot of friends, or an important job, or a really big car. But it might humble you to know that all of those things – your friends, your office, your really big car, you yourself, and even everything in this incredible, vast Universe – are almost entirely, 99.9999999 percent empty space. Here’s the deal. As I previously wrote in a story for the particle physics publication Symmetry, the size of an atom is governed by the average location of its electrons: how much space there is between the nucleus and the atom’s amorphous outer shell. Nuclei are around 100,000 times smaller than the atoms they’re housed in. If the nucleus were the size of a peanut, the atom would be about the size of a baseball stadium. If we lost all the dead space inside our atoms, we would each be able to fit into a particle of dust, and the entire human species would fit into the volume of a sugar cube. So then where does all our mass come from? SciFri Energy! At a pretty basic level, we’re all made of atoms, which are made of electrons, protons, and neutrons. And at an even more basic, or perhaps the most basic level, those protons and neutrons, which hold the bulk of our mass, are made of a trio of fundamental particles called quarks. But, as I explained in Symmetry, the mass of these quarks accounts for just a tiny per cent of the mass of the protons and neutrons. And gluons, which hold these quarks together, are completely massless. A lot of scientists think that almost all the mass of our bodies comes from the kinetic energy of the quarks and the binding energy of the gluons. So if all of the atoms in the Universe are almost entirely empty space, why does anything feel solid? The idea of empty atoms huddling together, composing our bodies and buildings and trees might be a little confusing. If our atoms are mostly space, why can’t we pass through things like weird ghost people in a weird ghost world? Why don’t our cars fall through the road, through the centre of the Earth, and out the other side of the planet? Why don’t our hands glide through other hands when we give out high fives? It’s time to reexamine what we mean by empty space. Because as it turns out, space is never truly empty. It’s actually full of a whole fistful of good stuff, including wave functions and invisible quantum fields. You can think about the empty space in an atom as you might think about an electric fan with rotating blades. When the fan isn’t in motion, you can tell that a lot of what’s inside of that fan is empty space. You can safely stick your hand into the space between the blades and wiggle your fingers in the nothingness. But when that fan is turned on it’s a different story. If you’re silly enough to shove your hand into that 'empty space', those blades will inevitably swing around and smack into it… relentlessly. Technically electrons are point sources, which means they have no volume. But they do have something called a wave function occupying a nice chunk of the atom. And because quantum mechanics likes to be weird and confusing, the volume-less electron is somehow simultaneously everywhere in that chunk of space. The blades of the fan are akin to electrons zipping around the atom, occupying chunks of space with their wave functions. It’s a painful reminder that what might seem like empty space can feel pretty solid. You've never really touched anything in your life Elizabeth Ann Colette/Flickr Are you sitting down for this? Well, you’re not really. Your butt isn’t actually touching the chair you’re sitting on. Since the meat of your atoms is nestled away in nuclei, when you 'touch' someone (or something), you aren’t actually feeling their atoms. What you’re feeling is the electromagnetic force of your electrons pushing away their electrons. On a very, very technical level, you’re not actually sitting on that chair. You’re hovering ever so slightly above it. So to conclude: Your very important human body is really, kind of, in a way, just a misleading collection of empty spaces on an empty planet in an empty Universe. But at least you have a big car. Source BTW, If I am 99.99% space and I never touched anything, I don't exist. I reject sciences and its theories.
  3. Can't just use an iPhone — Space-grade CPUs: How do you send more computing power into space? Figuring out radiation was a huge "turning point in the history of space electronics." Mars beckons. NASA 135 with 86 posters participating Phobos-Grunt, perhaps the most ambitious deep space mission ever attempted by Russia, crashed down into the ocean at the beginning of 2012. The spacecraft was supposed to land on the battered Martian moon Phobos, gather soil samples, and get them back to Earth. Instead, it ended up helplessly drifting in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) for a few weeks because its onboard computer crashed just before it could fire the engines to send the spacecraft on its way to Mars. In the ensuing report, Russian authorities blamed heavy charged particles in galactic cosmic rays that hit the SRAM chips and led to a latch-up, a chip failure resulting from excessive current passing through. To deal with this latch-up, two processors working in the Phobos-Grunt’s TsVM22 computer initiated a reboot. After rebooting, the probe then went into a safe mode and awaited instructions from ground control. Unfortunately, those instructions never arrived. Antennas meant for communications were supposed to become fully operational in the cruise stage of Phobos-Grunt, after the spacecraft left the LEO. But nobody planned for a failure preventing the probe from reaching that stage. After the particle strike, the Phobos-Grunt ended up in a peculiar stalemate. Firing on-board engines was supposed to trigger the deployment of antennas. At the same time, engines could only be fired with a command issued from ground control. This command, however, could not get through, because antennas were not deployed. In this way, a computer error killed a mission that was several decades in the making. It happened, in part, because of some oversights from the team at the NPO Lavochkin, a primary developer of the Phobos-Grunt probe. During development, in short, it was easier to count the things that worked in their computer than to count the things that didn’t. Every little mistake they made, though, became a grave reminder that designing space-grade computers is bloody hard. One misstep and billions of dollars go down in flames. Everyone involved had simply grossly underestimated the challenge of carrying out computer operations in space. Why so slow? Curiosity, everyone’s favorite Mars rover, works with two BAE RAD750 processors clocked at up to 200MHz. It has 256MB of RAM and 2GB of SSD. As we near 2020, the RAD750 stands as the current state-of-the-art, single-core space-grade processor. It’s the best we can send on deep space missions today. Compared to any smartphone we wear in our pockets, unfortunately, the RAD750’s performance is simply pathetic. The design is based on the PowerPC 750, a processor that IBM and Motorola introduced in late 1997 to compete with Intel's Pentium II. This means that perhaps the most technologically advanced space hardware up there is totally capable of running the original Starcraft (the one released in 1998, mind you) without hiccups, but anything more computationally demanding would prove problematic. You can forget about playing Crysis on Mars. Still, the price tag on the RAD750 is around $200k. Why not just throw an iPhone in there and call it a day? Performance-wise, iPhones are entire generations ahead of RAD750s and cost just $1k apiece, which remains much less than $200k. In retrospect, this is roughly what the Phobos-Grunt team tried to accomplish. They tried to boost performance and cut costs, but they ended up cutting corners. The SRAM chip in the Phobos-Grunt that was hit by a heavily charged particle went under the name of WS512K32V20G24M. It was well known in the space industry because back in 2005, T.E. Page and J.M. Benedetto had tested those chips in a particle accelerator at the Brookhaven National Laboratory to see how they perform when exposed to radiation. The researchers described the chips as "extremely" vulnerable, and single-event latch-ups occurred even at the minimum heavy-ion linear energy transfer available at Brookhaven. This was not a surprising result, mind you, because WS512K32V20G24M chips have never been meant nor tested for space. They have been designed for aircraft, military-grade aircraft for that matter. But still, they were easier to obtain and cheaper than real space-grade memories, so the Russians involved with Phobos-Grunt went for them regardless. "The discovery of the various kinds of radiation present in the space environment was among the most important turning points in the history of space electronics, along with the understanding of how this radiation affects electronics, and the development of hardening and mitigation techniques,” says Dr. Tyler Lovelly, a researcher at the US Air Force Research Laboratory. Main sources of this radiation are cosmic rays, solar particle events, and belts of protons and electrons circling at the edge of the Earth’s magnetic field known as Van Allen belts. Particles hitting the Earth’s atmosphere are composed of roughly 89% protons, 9% alpha particles, 1% heavier nuclei, and 1% solitary electrons. They can reach energies up to 10^19 eV. Using the chips not qualified for space in a probe that intended to travel through deep space for several years was asking for a disaster to happen. In fact, Krasnaya Zvezda, a Russian military newspaper, reported at that time that 62% of the microchips used on the Phobos-Grunt were not qualified for spaceflight. The probe design was 62% driven by a "let’s throw in an iPhone" mindset. Radiation becomes a thing Today, radiation is one of the key factors designers take into account when building space-grade computers. But it has not always been that way. The first computer reached space onboard a Gemini spacecraft back in the 1960s. The machine had to undergo more than a hundred different tests to get flight clearance. Engineers checked how it performed when exposed to vibrations, vacuum, extreme temperatures, and so on. But none of those testes covered radiation exposure. Still, the Gemini onboard computer managed to work pretty fine—no issues whatsoever. That was the case because the Gemini onboard computer was too big to fail. Literally. Its whooping 19.5KB of memory was housed in a 700-cubic-inch box weighing 26 pounds. The whole computer weighed 58.98 pounds. First orbital rendezvous: Gemini VI keeps station after using its on-board computer to maneuver to position near Gemini VII. NASA Generally for computing, pushing processor technology forward has always been done primarily by reducing feature sizes and increasing clock rates. We just made transistors smaller and smaller moving from 240nm, to 65nm, to 14nm, to as low as the 7nm designs we have in modern smartphones. The smaller the transistor, the lower the voltage necessary to turn it on and off. That’s why older processors with larger feature sizes were mostly unaffected by radiation—or, unaffected by so-called single event upsets (SEUs), to be specific. Voltage created by particle strikes was too low to really affect the operation of large enough computers. But when space-facing humans moved down with feature size to pack more transistors onto a chip, those particle-generated voltages became more than enough to cause trouble. Another thing engineers and developers typically do to improve CPUs is to clock them higher. The Intel 386SX that ran the so-called "glass cockpit" in space shuttles was clocked roughly at 20MHz. Modern processors can go as high as 5GHz in short bursts. A clock rate determines how many processing cycles a processor can go through in a given time. The problem with radiation is that a particle strike can corrupt data stored in an on-CPU memory (like L1 or L2 cache) only during an extremely brief moment in time called a latching window. This means in every second, there is a limited number of opportunities for a charged particle to do damage. In low-clocked processors like the 386SX, this number was relatively low. But when the clock speeds got higher, the number of latching windows per second increased as well, making processors more vulnerable to radiation. This is why radiation-hardened processors are almost always clocked way lower than their commercial counterparts. The main reason why space CPUs develop at such a sluggish pace is that pretty much every conceivable way to make them faster also makes them more fragile. Fortunately, there are ways around this issue. Dealing with radiation "In the old days, radiation effects were often mitigated by modifications implemented in the semiconductor process,” says Roland Weigand, a VISI/ASIC engineer at the European Space Agency. "It was sufficient to take a commercially available information processing core and implement it on a radiation hardened process.” Known as radiation hardening by process, this technique relied on using materials like sapphire or gallium arsenide that were less susceptible to radiation than silicon in the fabrication of microprocessors. Thus, manufactured processors worked very well in radiation-heavy environments like space, but they required an entire foundry to be retooled just to make them. "To increase performance we had to use more and more advanced processors. Considering the cost of a modern semiconductor factory, custom modifications in the manufacturing process ceased to be feasible for such a niche market as space,” Weigand says. According to him, this trend eventually forced engineers to use commercial processors prone to single-event effects. "And to mitigate this, we had to move to alternative radiation-hardening techniques, especially the one we call radiation hardening by design,” Weigand adds. The RHBD (radiation hardening by design) process enabled manufacturers to use a standard CMOS (Complementary metal–oxide–semiconductor) fabrication process. This way, space-grade processors could be manufactured in commercial foundries, bringing the prices down to a manageable level and enabling space mission designers to catch up a little to commercially available stuff. Radiation was dealt with by engineering ingenuity rather than the sheer physics of the material. "For example, Triple Modular Redundancy is one of the most popular ways to achieve increased radiation resistance of an otherwise standard chip,” Weigand explained. "Three identical copies of every single bit of information are stored in the memory at all times. In the reading stage, all three copies are read and the correct one is chosen by a majority voting.” With this approach, if all three copies are identical, the bit under examination is declared correct. The same is true as well when just two copies are identical but a third is different; the majority vote decides which bit value is the correct one. When all three copies are different, the system registers this as an error. The whole idea behind the TMR is that copies are stored at different addresses in the memory that are placed at different spots on a chip. To corrupt data, two particles would have to simultaneously strike exactly where the two copies of the same bit are stored, and that is extremely unlikely. The downside to TMR, though, is that this approach leads to a lot of overhead. A processor has to go through every operation thrice, which means it can only reach one-third of its performance. Thus, the latest idea in the field is to get space-grade processors even closer to their commercially available counterparts. Instead of designing an entire system on chip with radiation-hard components, engineers choose where radiation hardness is really necessary and where it can safely be dispensed with. That’s a significant shift in the design priorities. Space-grade processors of old were built to be immune to radiation. Modern processors are not immune anymore, but they are designed to automatically deal with all kinds of errors radiation may cause. The LEON GR740, for example, is the latest European space-grade processor. It’s estimated to experience a staggering 9 SEUs a day on a geostationary Earth orbit. The trick is that all those SEUs are mitigated by the system and do not lead to functional errors. The GR740 is built to experience one functional error every 300 or so years. And even if that happens, it can recover just by rebooting. Enlarge / A GR740 Evaluation Board from March 2016 ESA Europe goes open source The LEON line of space-grade processors working in SPARC architecture is by far the most popular choice for space in Europe today. "Back in the 1990s, when the SPARC specification was chosen, it had significant industry penetration,” says Weigand. “Sun Microsystems was using SPARC on their successful workstations.” According to him, the key reasons behind going to SPARC were existing software support and openness. "An open source architecture meant anybody could use it without licensing issues. That was particularly important since in such a niche market as space, the license fee is distributed among a very limited number of devices, which can increase their prices dramatically," he explains. Ultimately, ESA learned about the issues with licensing the hard way. The first European space-grade SPARC processor—the ERC32, which is still in use today—was using commercial information processing cores. It was based on an open source architecture, but the processor design was proprietary. "This led to problems. With proprietary designs you usually don’t have access to the source code, and thus making the custom modifications necessary to achieve radiation hardening is difficult,” says Weigand. That’s why in the next step, ESA started working on its own processor, named LEON. "The design was fully under our control, so we were finally free to introduce all RHBD techniques we wanted." The latest development in the line of LEON processors is the quad-core GR740 clocked at roughly 250MHz. ("We’re expecting to ship first flight parts towards the end of 2019,” Weigand says.) The GR740 is fabricated in the 65nm process technology. The device is a system-on-chip designed for high-performance, general-purpose computing based on the SPARC32 instruction set architecture. "The goal in building the GR740 was to achieve higher performance and capability to have additional devices included in one integrated circuit while keeping the whole system compatible with previous generations of European space-grade processors,” says Weigand. Another feature of the GR740 is advanced fault-tolerance. The processor can experience a significant number of errors caused by radiation and ensure uninterrupted software execution nonetheless. Each block and function of the GR740 has been optimized for best possible performance. This meant that components sensitive to single event upsets were used alongside the one that could withstand them easily. All SEU-sensitive parts have been implemented with a scheme designed to mitigate possible errors through redundancy. For example, some flip-flops (basic processor components that can store either 1s or 0s) in the GR740 are off-the-shelf commercial parts known as CORELIB FFs. The choice to use them was made because they took less space on the chip and thus increased its computational density. The downside was that they were susceptible to SEUs, but this vulnerability has been dealt with by the Block TMR correction scheme where every bit read from those flip-flops is voted on by modules arranged with adequate spacing among them to prevent multiple bit upsets (scenarios where one particle can flip multiple bits at once). There are similar mitigation schemes implemented for L1 and L2 cache memories composed of SRAM cells, which are also generally SEU-sensitive. When the penalty such schemes inflicted on performance was eventually considered too high, ESA engineers went for SEU-hardened SKYROB flip-flops. Those, however, took twice the area of CORELIBs. Ultimately when thinking about space and computing power, there was always some kind of trade-off to make. So far, the GR740 passed several radiation tests with flying colors. The chip has been bombarded with heavy ions with linear energy transfer (LET) reaching 125 MeV.cm^2/mg and worked through all of this without hiccups. To put that in perspective, feral SRAM chips that most likely brought down the Phobos-Grunt latched up when hit with heavy ions of just 0.375 MeV.cm^2/mg. The GR740 withstood levels of radiation over 300 times higher than what Russians had put in their probe. Besides a near-immunity to single-event effects, the GR740 is specced to take up to 300 krad(Si) of radiation in its lifetime. In the testing phase, Weigand’s team even had one of the processors irradiated to 292 krad(Si). Despite that, the chip worked as usual, with no signs of degradation whatsoever. Still, specific tests to check the actual total ionizing dose the GR740 can take are yet to come. All those numbers combined mean that the processor working at the geostationary Earth orbit should experience one functional error every 350 years. In LEO, this time should be around 1,310 years. And even those errors wouldn’t kill the GR740. It would just need to do a reset. Enlarge / Unlike the ESA, NASA opted for proprietary work: In 2017, it selected Boeing for the High Performance Spaceflight Computing Processor (Chiplet) contract for the development of prototype Chiplet devices. NASA America goes proprietary "Space-grade CPUs developed in the US have traditionally been based on proprietary processor architectures such as PowerPC because people had more extensive experience working with them and they were widely supported in software,” says the Air Force Research Labs’ Lovelly. After all, the history of space computation began with digital processors delivered by IBM for the Gemini mission back in the 1960s. And the technology IBM worked with was proprietary. To this day, BAE RAD processors are based on the PowerPC, which was brought to life by a consortium of IBM, Apple, and Motorola. Processors powering glass cockpits in the Space Shuttles and Hubble Space telescope were made in the x86 architecture introduced by Intel. Both PowerPC and x86 were proprietary. So in carrying with the tradition, the latest American design in this field is proprietary, too. Named High Performance Spaceflight Computing (HPSC), the only difference is that PowerPC and x86 were best known from desktop computers. The HPSC is based on the ARM architecture that today works in most smartphones and tablets. The HPSC has been designed by NASA, Air Force Research Laboratory, and Boeing, which is responsible for manufacturing the chips. The HPSC is based on the ARM Cortex A53 quad-core processors. It will have two such processors connected by an AMBA bus, which makes it an octa-core system. This should place its performance somewhere in the range of mid-market 2018 smartphones like Samsung Galaxy J8 or development boards like HiKey Lemaker or Raspberry Pi. (That’s before radiation hardening, which will cut its performance by more than half that.) Nevertheless, we’re no longer likely to read bleak headlines screaming that 200 processors powering the Curiosity rover would not be enough to beat one iPhone. With the HPSC up and running, this is more likely to be three or four chips required to get iPhone-like computing power. "Since we do not yet have an actual HPSC for tests, we can make some educated guesses as to what its performance may be like,” says Lovelly. Clock speed was the first aspect to go under scrutiny. Commercial Cortex A53 octa-core processors are usually clocked between 1.2GHz (in the HiKey Lemaker for example) and 1.8GHz (in the Snapdragon 450). To estimate what the clock speed would look like in the HPSC after radiation hardening, Lovelly compared various space-grade processors with their commercially available counterparts. "We just thought it reasonable to expect a similar hit on performance,” he says. Lovelly estimated HPSC clock speed at 500MHz. This would still be exceptionally fast for a space-grade chip. In fact, if this turned out to be true for the flight version, the HPSC would have the highest clock rate among space-grade processors. But more computing power and higher clock rates usually come at a dear price in space. BAE RAD5545 is probably the most powerful radiation-hardened processor available today. Fabricated in the 45nm process, it is a 64-bit quad-core machine clocked at 466MHz with power dissipation of up to 20 Watts—and 20 Watts is a lot. A Quad Core i5 sitting in a 13-inch MacBook Pro 2018 is a 28 Watt processor. It can heat its thin aluminum chassis to really high temperatures up to a point where it becomes an issue for some users. Under more computationally intensive workloads, fans immediately kick in to cool the whole thing down. The only issue is that, in space, fans would do absolutely nothing, because there is no air they could blow onto a hot chip. The only possible way to get heat out of a spacecraft is through radiation, and that takes time. Sure, heat pipes are there to take excessive heat away from the processor, but this heat has to eventually go somewhere. Moreover, some missions have tight energy budgets, and they simply can’t use powerful processors like RAD5545 under such restrictions. That’s why the European GR740 has power dissipation at only 1.5 Watts. It’s not the fastest of the lot, but it is the most efficient. It simply gives you the most computational bang per Watt. The HPSC with 10 Watt power dissipation comes in at a close second, but not always. "Each core on the HPSC has its own Single Instruction Multiple Data unit,” says Lovelly. "This gives it a significant performance advantage over other space-grade processors.” SIMD is a technology commonly used in commercial desktop and mobile processors since the 1990s. It helps processors handle image and sound processing in video games better. Let’s say we want to brighten up an image. There are a number of pixels, and each one has a brightness value that needs to be increased by two. Without SIMD, a processor would need to go through all those additions in sequence, one pixel after the other. With SIMD, though, the task can be parallelized. The processor simply takes multiple data points—brightness values of all the pixels in the image—and performs the same instruction, adding two to all of them simultaneously. And because the Cortex A53 was a processor designed for smartphones and tablets that handled a lot of media content, the HPSC can do this trick as well. "This is particularly beneficial in tasks like image compression, processing, or stereo vision,” says Lovelly. "In applications that can’t utilize this feature, the HPSC performs slightly better than the GR740 and other top-performing space processors. But when it comes to things where it can be used, the chip gets well ahead of the competitors.” Making space exploration sci-fi again Chip designers in the US tend to go for more powerful, but more energy-hungry, space-grade processors because NASA aims to run more large-scale robotic and crewed missions compared to its European counterparts. In Europe, there are no current plans to send humans or car-sized planetary rovers to the Moon or Mars in the predictable future. The modern ESA is more focused on probes and satellites, which usually work on tight energy budgets, meaning something light, nimble, and extremely energy-efficient like the GR740 makes much more sense. The HPSC, in turn, has been designed from the ground up to make at least some of NASA’s at-times sci-fi ambitions reality. Back in 2011, for instance, NASA’s Game Changing Development Program commissioned a study to determine what space computing needs would look like in the next 15 to 20 years. A team of experts from various NASA centers came up with a list of problems advanced processors could solve in both crewed and robotic missions. One of the first things they pointed to was advanced vehicle health management, which they deemed crucial for sending humans on long deep space missions. It boils down to having sensors constantly monitoring the health of crucial components. Fast processors are needed to get data from all those sensors at high frequencies. A sluggish computer could probably cope with this task if the sensor readouts got in every 10 minutes or so, but if you want to do the entire checkup multiple times a second to achieve something resembling real-time monitoring, the processor needs to be really fast. All of this would need to be devised to have astronauts seated in front of consoles showing the actual condition of their spaceship with voiced alerts and advanced graphics. And running such advanced graphics would also demand fast computers. The team called that "improved displays and controls.” But the sci-fi aspirations do not end at flight consoles. Astronauts exploring alien worlds could likely have augmented reality features built right into their visors. The view of a physical environment around them will be enhanced with computer-generated video, sound, or GPS data. Augmentation would in theory provide situational awareness, highlighting areas worthy of exploring and warning against potentially dangerous situations. Of course, having the AR built into the helmets is only one possible option. Other notable ideas mentioned in the study included hand-held, smartphone-like devices and something vaguely specified as "other display capabilities" (whatever those other capabilities may be). Faster space-grade processors would be needed to power such computing advances. Faster space-grade processors are meant to ultimately improve robotic missions as well. Extreme terrain landing is one of the primary examples. Choosing a landing site for a rover is a tradeoff between safety and scientific value. The safest possible site is a flat plane with no rocks, hills, valleys, or outcrops. The most scientifically interesting site, however, is geologically diverse, which usually means that it is packed with rocks, hills, valleys, and outcrops. So called Terrain Relative Navigation (TRN) capability is one of the ways to deal with that. Rovers equipped with the TRN could recognize important landmarks, see potential hazards, and navigate around them, narrowing down the landing radius to less than 100 meters. The problem is that current space-grade processors are way too slow to process images at such a rate. So the NASA team behind the study ran a TRN software benchmark on the RAD 750 and found the update from a single camera took roughly 10 seconds. Unfortunately, 10 seconds would be a lot when you’re falling down to the Martian surface. To land a rover within 100-meter radius, an update from a camera would have to be processed every second. For a pinpoint, one meter landing, estimates would need to come at 10Hz, which is 10 updates per second. Other things on NASA’s computational wishlist include algorithms that can predict impending disasters based on sensor readouts, intelligent scheduling, advanced autonomy, and so on. All this is beyond the capabilities of current space-grade processors. So in the study, NASA engineers estimated how much processing power would be needed to efficiently run those things. They found that spacecraft health management and extreme terrain landing needed between 10 and 50 GOPS (gigaoperations per second). Futuristic sci-fi flight consoles with fancy displays and advanced graphics needed somewhere between 50 and 100 GOPS. The same thing goes for augmented reality helmets or other devices; these also consumed between 50 and 100 GOPS. Ideally, future space-grade processors would be able to power all those things smoothly. Today, the HPSC running at a power dissipation between 7 and 10 Watts can process 9 to 15 GOPS. This alone would make extreme landing possible, but the HPSC is designed in such a way that this figure can go up significantly. First, those 15 GOPS do not include performance benefits that the SIMD engine brings to the table. Second, the processor can work connected to other HPSCs and external devices like special-purpose processors, FPGAs, or GPUs. Thus, a future spaceship can potentially have multiple distributed processors working in parallel with specialized chips assigned to certain tasks like image or signal processing. No matter where humanity’s deep space dreams go next, we won’t have to wait that long for engineers to know where the current computing power stands. The LEON GR740 is scheduled for delivery to ESA at the end of this year, and after a few additional tests it should be flight ready in 2020. The HPSC, in turn, is set for a fabrication phase that should begin in 2021 and last until 2022. Testing is expected to take a few months in 2022. NASA should get flight-ready HPSC chips by the end of 2022. That means, all other complicating timeline factors aside, at least the future of space silicon appears on track to be ready for spaceships taking humans back to the Moon in 2024. Jacek Krywko is a science and technology writer based in Warsaw, Poland. He covers space exploration and artificial intelligence research, and he has previously written for Ars about facial-recognition screening, teaching AI-assistants new languages, and AI in space. Source: Space-grade CPUs: How do you send more computing power into space? (Ars Technica)
  4. Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic will be the first publicly traded company for human spaceflight The race to become the first publicly traded company dedicated to human spaceflight is over, and Virgin Galactic has won. The company will be listing its shares on the New York Stock Exchange through a minority acquisition made by Social Capital Hedosophia; the special purpose acquisition company created by former Facebook executive Chamath Palihapitiya as part of his exploration of alternative strategies to venture capital investing as the head of Social Capital — according to a report in The Wall Street Journal. Formed with a $600 million commitment roughly two years ago, the SPAC is expected to make an $800 million commitment to Virgin Galactic, according to the Journal’s reporting. Unlike other launch companies like Elon Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies Corp., Virgin Galactic has focused on suborbital launches for conducting experiments and taking tourists up to space. SpaceX is investing more heavily in the development of launch capabilities for lunar and interplanetary travel — and commercial applications like Internet connectivity via satellite. Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin also reportedly has plans for space tourism while pursuing several commercial and government launch contracts (and a lunar lander). Virgin Galactic was initially in discussions with the kingdom of Saudi Arabia for a roughly $1 billion capital infusion, but Virgin Galactic’s billionaire chief executive, Richard Branson, walked away from the deal in the wake of the kingdom’s assassination of Washington Post journalist, Jamal Kashoggi. That’s when Palihapitiya stepped in, according to the Journal. The billionaire financier needed to do something with the capital he’d raised for the Hedosophia SPAC since the investment vehicles have to make an investment within a two-year timeframe or be wound down. Likely, the Virgin Galactic business made a tempting target. The company already has roughly $80 million in commitments from people around the world willing to pay $250,000 for the privilege of a suborbital trip to the exosphere. Virgin Galactic launched as a business in 2004, two years after SpaceX made its first fledgling steps toward creating a private space industry, and was the first company to focus on space tourism and launching small satellites into orbit. The company’s commercial division, Virgin Orbit, is still competing for satellite launch capabilities. Like most privately funded space companies, Virgin Galactic was a pet project of the billionaire behind it, with the Journal estimating that Branson has put nearly $1 billion into the company already. The new $800 million means that the SPAC isn’t the only investor in Virgin Galactic. Palihapitiya is taking a $100 million investment into the company too. In return the vehicle will own roughly 49% of the spaceflight business as it trades on the open market. Image Credits: Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic / Getty Images Source: Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic will be the first publicly traded company for human spaceflight
  5. After populating space with satellites and sending probes to Moon and Mars, India will have an address in the skies. Isro chief K Sivan has said India will set up its own space station, within seven years. Addressing reporters along with minister of state for department of space Jitendra Singh in New Delhi, he said the project would be an extension of Gaganyaan, India's first manned mission slated for early 2022. "We don't want to be part of the International Space Station (ISS), therefore we want to set up our own. Our station won't be very big. It will have a mass of 20 tonnes and be used for studies including microgravity tests. It will have provision for people to live for 15-20 days," Sivan said. India, meanwhile, will be part of international collaborations to send humans to Moon and Mars, and colonise the Moon, the chairman said. For three years, Isro has been quietly working on 'space docking experiment' (Spadex), a technology that is crucial for making the space station functional. The department of space had allocated Rs 10 crore for Spadex that allows transferring humans from one spacecraft to another. The immediate goal, however, will be to enable refuelling of spacecraft and transfer other systems from Earth to the station. Isro scientists on the Spadex project have been working on signal analysis equipment, high-precision videometer for navigation, docking system electronics and real-time decision making for landing systems. "As part of Spadex, we will develop and demonstrate technologies needed for docking two spacecraft (chase & target) and to control one spacecraft from the attitude control system of other spacecraft in the docked condition," Isro said. On the Gaganyaan mission, Sivan said, "We are racing against time to meet the 2022 launch deadline given by Prime Minister. As we are planning to launch the mission by December 2021, we will send our shortlisted astronauts for advanced training abroad as there is no time to set up the training centre here. However, the basic training will happen in India." Jitendra Singh said shortlisting of the Indian crew will be over in six weeks and training will be completed in a year or two. Source
  6. Black holes are great at sucking up matter. So great, in fact, that not even light can escape their grasp (hence the name). But given their talent for consumption, why don't black holes just keep expanding and expanding and simply swallow the Universe? Now, one of the world's top physicists has come up with an explanation. Conveniently, the idea could also unite the two biggest theories in all of physics. The researcher behind this latest explanation is none other than Stanford University physicist Leonard Susskind, also known as one of the fathers of string theory. He recently gave his two cents on the paradox in a series of papers, which basically suggest that black holes expand by increasing in complexity inwardly – a feature we just don't see connected while watching from afar. In other words, they expand in, not out. Weirder still, this hypothesis might have a parallel in the expansion of our own Universe, which also seems to be growing in a counterintuitive way. "I think it's a very, very interesting question whether the cosmological growth of space is connected to the growth of some kind of complexity," Susskind was quoted in The Atlantic. "And whether the cosmic clock, the evolution of the universe, is connected with the evolution of complexity. There, I don't know the answer." Susskind might be speculating on the Universe's evolution, but his thoughts on why black holes grow in more than they do out is worth unpacking. To be clear though, for now this work has only been published on the pre-print site arXiv.org, so it's yet to be peer reviewed. That means we need to take it with a big grain of salt for now. On top of that, this type of research is, by its very nature, theoretical. But there are some pretty cool idea in here worth unpacking. To do that, we need to go back to basics for a moment. So … hang tight. For the uninitiated, black holes are dense masses that distort space to the extent that even light (read: information) lacks the escape velocity required to make an exit. The first solid theoretical underpinnings for such an object emerged naturally out of the mathematics behind Einstein's general relativity back in 1915. Since then physical objects matching those predictions have been spotted, often hanging around the centre of galaxies. A common analogy is to imagine the dimensions of space plus time as a smooth rubber sheet. Much as a heavy object dimples the rubber sheet, mass distorts the geometry of spacetime. The properties of our Universe's rubber sheet means it can form deep gravity funnel that stretches 'down' without stretching much further 'out'. Most objects expand 'out' as you add material, not 'in'. So how do we even begin to picture this? Rubber sheets are useful analogies, but only up to a certain point. To understand how matter behaves against this super stretchy backdrop, we need to look elsewhere. Luckily physics has a second rulebook on 'How the Universe Works' called quantum mechanics, which describes how particles and their forces interact. The two rule books of GR and QM don't always agree, though. Small things interpreted through the lens of general relativity don't make much sense. And big things like black holes produce gibberish when the rules of quantum mechanics are applied. This means we're missing something important – something that would allow us to interpret general relativity's space-bending feature in terms of finite masses and force-mediating particles. One contender is something called anti-de Sitter/conformal field theory correspondence, which is shortened to Ads/CFT. This is a 'string theory meets four dimensional space' kind of idea, aiming to bring the best of both quantum mechanics and general relativity together. Based on its framework, the quantum complexity of a black hole – the number of steps required to return it to a pre-black hole state – is reflected in its volume. The same thinking is what lies behind another brain-breaking idea called the holographic principle. The exact details aren't for the faint hearted, but are freely available on arXiv.org if you want to get your mathematics fix for the day. It might sound a bit like downloading movies onto your desktop only to find it's now 'bigger' on the inside. As ludicrous as it sounds, in the extreme environment of a black hole more computational power might indeed mean more internal volume. At least this is what Susskind's Ads/CFT modelling suggests. String theory itself is one of those nice ideas begging for an empirical win, so we're still a long way from marrying quantum mechanics and general relativity. Susskind's suggestion that quantum complexity is ultimately responsible for the volume of a black hole has physicists thinking through the repercussions. After all, black holes aren't like ordinary space, so we can't expect ordinary rules to apply. But if anybody is worth listening to on the subject, it's probably this guy. This research is available on arXiv.org. source
  7. Saturn is famous for its lovely rings, but a new study suggests the planet has spent most of its 4.5 billion years without them. The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope observed Saturn on June 6. 2018 That's because the rings are likely only 10 million to 100 million years old, according to a newly published report in the journal Science that's based on findings from NASA's Cassini probe. Cassini spent some 13 years orbiting Saturn before plunging down and slamming into its atmosphere. During its final orbits, the spacecraft dove between the planet and its rings. That let scientists measure the gravitational effect of the rings and get a good estimate of the ring material's mass. What they found is that it's only about 40 percent of the mass of Saturn's moon Mimas, which is way smaller than Earth's moon. Cassini spacecraft captured this natural color view of Saturn's rings on June 21, 2004. This small mass suggests that the rings are relatively young. That's because the rings seem to be made of extremely pure water ice, suggesting that the bright white rings have not existed long enough to be contaminated by the bombardment of messy, dirty comets that would be expected to occur over billions of years. Some scientists thought it was possible that darker debris from comets might lie beneath the bright ice, undetectable to their instruments, but this new study shows that isn't the case. "There's no huge amount of massive material hidden in the rings that we can't see," says Philip Nicholson, a planetary scientist at Cornell University and one of the study's authors. "The rings are almost pure ice." He says the relative youthfulness of Saturn's ring system is something that scientists have come to suspect only recently. "It was easier to believe that it formed at the same time as Saturn and its satellites did," Nicholson says. "It's hard to understand how they could have formed that recently." It's possible that the rings are the remnants of a comet or some other icy object that made a chance encounter with Saturn and got ripped up, he says. Or, perhaps one of Saturn's icy moons got whacked by an impact with a large comet. Whatever happened, it's looking more and more likely that Saturn's splendid rings are a temporary phenomenon that humans are lucky to get to see at all. Previous measurements from Cassini helped show that the rings may be disappearing at a rapid clip, as dusty ice particles get pulled down to Saturn by its gravity. In another 100 million years, Saturn's most distinctive feature might be gone. Source
  8. At the end of its life, our Sun could end up as a crystal—and physicists now have observational evidence to back up that theory. Scientists have predicted that as white dwarfs cool, they can crystallize in a phase transition somewhat like water freezing into ice. New research from scientists in the UK, U.S., and Canada provides evidence of this transition in a survey of nearby white dwarfs. This is especially interesting to us because, as we’ve reported, scientists predict that our own Sun’s fate is to become a white dwarf. White dwarfs are small, faint, and incredibly dense stars, the result of stars like the Sun running out of the fuel that powers their nuclear fusion. They have masses around that of the Sun but are only around the size of the Earth. They consist of a densely packed plasma of atoms and their electrons. The electrons are forbidden from sharing exact states by the rules of quantum mechanics, so they exert a pressure that keeps the stars from collapsing. Though they’re plasmas, scientists have long predicted that these squished atoms should eventually crystallize, beginning at the stars’ centers. There’s been indirect observation of the crystallization, but scientists now claim to have observed the process directly. They describe their findings in a paper published in Nature. Models suggest that when white dwarfs crystallize, they release heat in order to enter the lower-energy phase, the way heat energy leaves water as it freezes into ice. This would slow down the star’s cooling, an effect that scientists can observe directly. The team analyzed a catalog of 15,109 white dwarf candidates within 100 parsecs (326 light-years) of our Sun using data from the Gaia satellite. And indeed, they found a “pile-up” of stars at certain locations along a plot of color versus brightness. That’s evidence of stars going through the phase transition from plasma to crystal, according to the paper. Obviously, this is dependent on modeling, and perhaps other explanations could explain the data better. But it’s exciting stuff—this would imply that many white dwarfs could be older than scientists thought, since the crystallization slows the aging process. And one day our Sun, too, may be a beautiful crystal ball. And we’ll be dead. Source
  9. On 24 December 1968 - 50 years ago this Christmas eve - Apollo 8 astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and William Anders became the first humans to circle the Moon. The mission was historic. But equally memorable is the famous "Earthrise" photo that resulted, showing Earth rising above the lunar landscape. Until that point, no human eyes had ever seen our blue marble from so far away. In Life's 100 Photographs That Changed the World, acclaimed wilderness photographer Galen Rowell described the unprecedented view of Earth as "the most influential environmental photograph ever taken." The image of our planet, which seems so small and vulnerable in the blackness of space, made people more aware of its fragility. Earthrise is now one of the most reproduced space photos of all time, appearing on US postage stamps, posters, and the cover of Time magazine in 1969. The famous 'Earthrise' photo taken by Apollo 8 astronauts (NASA) Many have pointed out the irony of the photo, since Apollo 8 was sent to study and take pictures of the Moon's surface – not Earth. "Of all the objectives NASA had set before launch, no one had thought of photographing the Earth from lunar orbit," Robert Zimmerman wrote in his book Genesis: The Story of Apollo 8: the First Manned Flight to Another World. The famous photo was taken during the mission's fourth pass around the Moon, at which point the spacecraft had changed its orbit, making it possible to see the Earth above the lunar horizon. None of the astronauts were prepared for that moment, including lunar module pilot Anders, who had been put in charge of photography. In an interview for a BBC documentary, Anders described the sequences of events like this: Initially, both Borman and Anders claimed responsibility for the now-famous picture. An investigation of transcripts later revealed that Borman, who was the first to recognise the importance of the moment, took a black-and-white photo before Anders snapped the iconic colour photograph. Fred Spier, a senior lecturer at the University of Amsterdam, notes in his article "The Elusive Apollo 8 Earthrise Photo" that Borman and Lovell each played a crucial part in prompting Anders, who had the only colour camera, to take the shot. "Experienced astronaut Frank Borman was the first to the importance of the picture, while equally experienced astronaut James Lovell was quick to follow," Spier writes. "Space rookie William Anders, however, was in charge of taking the photos. In doing so, Anders had to follow a rather tight and well-defined photo plan, in which there was little or no room for unplanned snapshots." Spier continued: "Anders first offered some resistance and then quickly did what the other told him to do. Although it now seems beyond doubt that Anders actually snapped the famous picture, it also seems fair to say the picture came as a result of the combined efforts of all three astronauts." source
  10. MOJAVE, Calif. — Deep inside The Spaceship Company’s secretive Building 79, a man points to a rigid but lightweight panel made from carbon fiber that is the thickness of two decks of cards. The absurdity of what he’s about to say makes him smile. “There’s just about one inch between you and space,” says Enrico Palermo, president of Virgin's The Spaceship Company, which is tasked with building the plane-like crafts that Virgin Galactic plans to use to take paying customers on a joy ride into the cosmos next year. “That’s it, one inch,” says Palermo, pointing at the thin hull material and shaking his head. “Amazing what humans can do.” Especially when it comes to space. Venturing into the cosmos has always packed a thrill, a risk, an adventure and a cost in both dollars and lives. Forever, it was down to government agencies and professional astronauts to pay that price and reap those rewards. But no longer. If all goes to plan, though admittedly little in the realm of space exploration does, Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic could be the first of a few tech-titan-fueled private space ventures to blast ordinary humans into space and return them safely to Earth. Whether Virgin Galactic becomes merely a thrill ride for those with $250,000 for a ticket or a giant leap for mankind remains a looming question. For his part, Branson is confident his new company will be both, a unique adventure whose payoff — the so-called Overview Effect, where humans gape in wide-eyed awe at our big blue marble from 50 miles high — will generate a protective love of home. “We will provide a platform for those (Virgin Galactic customers) to share their experiences and accelerate the global understanding of a fundamental truth, that we are essentially all in this together, fellow passengers on spaceship Earth,” Branson says in an email exchange. “I am,” he adds, “one of those who feels reasonably optimistic for the future of planet Earth as a good place for humans to live, despite the huge challenges.” With his “leave Earth to appreciate it” mission statement, Branson is taking a tack that differs from that of Amazon boss Jeff Bezos, whose Blue Origin rocket company envisions humans living and working in space, or SpaceX founder Elon Musk, who famously is aiming for human colonization of Mars. But where Blue Origin officials say only that tickets go on sale next year for its autonomous space ride and SpaceX has plans to send up a lone customer as more of a one-off venture, Virgin Galactic is making noises that 2019 could bring regular customer trips out of its futuristic Spaceport in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. Some might not be holding their breath. Virgin Galactic has a history of promising imminent flights dating back a decade. In 2008, Branson predicted an inaugural flight within 18 months, and reiterated that timing in 2011. In the spring of 2013, Branson predicted he'd be space-bound by Christmas, perhaps dressed as Santa. But missed targets aside, at the very least a spirit of competition between three men who have been passionate about cosmic adventures has spawned a new space race. “Elon and Jeff and Richard have looked at the human-based (government space) programs that existed and concluded rightly they weren’t keeping pace,” says Christian Davenport, author of “The Space Barons: Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and the Quest to Colonize the Cosmos.” “These folks come out of the tech world, or in Richard’s case he’s funded all sorts of ventures, and they operate at a quick pace,” says Davenport. “There’s overall a huge frustration that, after NASA stepped away (from the Space Shuttle program), that we haven’t pushed farther into space. No one’s flown (tourists) into space. But Virgin Galactic now is getting close.” Tour starts with a dawn flight USA TODAY recently visited the company’s longtime desert-based headquarters two hours north of Los Angeles to check on the company’s progress as it races toward its first commercial launch. Each 90-minute Virgin Galactic trip will star two pilots and six passengers, including on the inaugural ride with Branson and his two children, Sam and Holly, as well as for the first of 600 customers who have already paid for flights (they're refundable if you opt to bail). The rare facility tour — which was focused on a series of cavernous buildings dedicated to manufacturing and testing its plane-like SpaceShipTwo (SS2) — kicked off with a dawn launch of WhiteKnightTwo (WK2), the massive, albatross-shaped mothership that carries SS2 50,000 feet for its airborne launch. As the gangly white craft taxied down the runway, Virgin Galactic chief pilot Dave Mackay, an amiable Scot who is one of a half-dozen experienced fliers slated to ferry customers into the great beyond, waxed lyrical about the joy ride. “We’ve all been around the block,” says the former Royal Air Force and ex-Virgin Airlines pilot. “But when we do these tests (of SS2), we’re just like little kids again.” Mackay runs through the sequence that Virgin Galactic customers will experience. After strapping into their reclining seats, SS2 is taken to just above commercial jet altitudes by WK2. “We’ll talk a bit, but won’t bore them,” Mackay says with a laugh. At cruising altitude, things get serious. WK2 drops SS2 and banks away sharply. “You’ll feel like you just went over the lip of a rollercoaster,” says Mackay. Just under 4 seconds later, with WK2 safely away, pilots will light the rocket aboard SS2, a solid rubber compound that is ignited by nitrous oxide. “That’s when the fun starts,” says Mackay, a veteran of numerous such test flights as Virgin Galactic pushes toward commercial readiness. SS2 suddenly takes off like a Roman candle, heading straight up and subjecting passengers to four times the force of Earth-bound gravity. ushing speeds close to Mach 3, or three times the speed of sound, SS2 will take roughly 60 seconds to reach the blackness of space, which officially starts at 50 miles up. And then, almost instantly, silence as the rocket exhausts itself. SS2 then will gracefully pivot upside down, giving the new astronauts an unfettered view of the earth through 12 big portholes. “They can then unbuckle and float around,” he says of the few minutes of weightless that mark the defining moment of the trip. “Then it’s back in the seats and the flight back home.” 'The ultimate adventure trip' For those waiting to board SS2, the moment of truth can’t come soon enough. Vivien Cornish, 54, was given a ticket to ride by her husband to mark her 50th birthday. The retired money manager from Sydney says she doesn’t like cars or jewelry but has “always been into adventure travel, and this is the ultimate adventure trip.” Cornish says she has met some of her fellow ticket holders — which Virgin Galactic calls Future Astronauts — at sponsored trips that so far have included group visits to the California headquarters, attendance at air races in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, and a gathering at Branson’s retreat on Necker Island in the British Virgin Islands. “For some people, it’s all about the zero G experience, but for me it’s about the Overview Effect,” she says. “Earth is wonderful and we have to look after it.” For businessman and philanthropist David Perez, 55, of Solano Beach, California, buying a ticket on Virgin Galactic was an instant impulse purchase. “What, there’s 8 billion people on Earth but only a thousand have been to space, and I’ll be the first Moroccan Jew in space,” says Perez, laughing. Like some of his fellow Future Astronauts, Perez has tried to make sure he stays in good shape for his eventual trip. Virgin Galactic says that anyone who is reasonably healthy should be eligible for the journey. The most difficult parts of the trip will be the 4G force while ascending, and the zero gravity experience in that it could make some travelers nauseous. But, ultimately, it’s up to customers, who no doubt will sign lengthy waivers, to try and be in the best condition possible to maximize their quarter-million-dollar trek. “Who knows if I’ll blow up and die,” says Perez. “But I just love being part of this community of people pursuing their passions and dreams.” 2014: A death but not a setback Death has in fact visited the Virgin Galactic effort. On Halloween 2014, test co-pilot Michael Alsbury lost his life when an early iteration of SS2 broke up in flight. Co-pilot Peter Siebold was seriously injured on his 10-mile fall back to Earth. A National Transportation Safety Board investigation found that the craft, which was built by Scaled Composites, did not have enough safeguards in place to prevent the pilot-error incident. Not far from Virgin Galactic’s compound there is a small memorial for a half-dozen pilots who have died while testing in and around Mojave, a storied location where fabled Air Force ace Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier in 1947. Next to a plaque with Alsbury’s name and photo sits a bouquet of flowers, fresh like the memories of his tragic death. “That was a terrible time for us,” Mackay says quietly. “But now the morale is good. Mike was a lovely guy and he wouldn’t have wanted us to stop. So part of the reason to continue testing was the sacrifice he made.” Mackay looks up at the cloudless blue sky. “Space isn’t easy,” he says. “People have been dying in this pursuit from the get-go. So we’re just building on the shoulders of those giants. They weren’t crazy, but let’s just say they had a different approach to risk.” After the crash, Virgin Galactic began using SS2s built by its Spaceship Company. Branson says Virgin Galactic engineers are relying on increasingly sophisticated technologies that build new levels of safety into a space launch. These include ferocious rockets that nonetheless can be shut off if necessary and advanced composites that provide not only high levels of structural rigidity but also the critical bonus of spacecraft reusability that keeps space travel costs in check. “That isn’t to say that we can eliminate all risk or that getting to a point where it’s appropriate to start flying paying passengers was ever going to be quick or easy,” he says, adding that nonetheless “with patience and perseverance we will be capable of delivering a repeatable experience at levels of safety that both we and our customers require.” That buoyed optimism is met with some skepticism from David Cowan, a longtime space company investor with Bessemer Venture Partners in Menlo Park, California. “The word tourism (in space tourism) belies the risk of early civilian missions,” says Cowan, who maintains that one fatal accident will “inevitably and episodically” suspend ventures such as Virgin Galactic for months or years. Cowan allows that Branson’s “raw ambition and ego are authentic,” and combined may well find Virgin Galactic able to achieve lift off. But the investor is less bullish on an oft-mentioned by-product of Virgin Galactic’s high tech efforts: The development of a 21st-century version of the Concorde that would allow supersonic travel from New York to Sydney in just a couple of hours. “There are safer, cheaper and more practical supersonic programs underway to succeed the Concorde,” he says. Branson insists he’d “love to be a part of” transcontinental travel that could reduce endless flight times while cutting down on the jet-fuel-pollution associated with such 15-hour journeys by Boeing or Airbus. “We have been traveling around now at around Mach 0.8 using fossil fuels for more than half a century and it’s time to seriously pursue faster and cleaner options,” he says, adding that this is why Virgin Galactic designed SS2 as a “winged runway take-off and landing vehicle.” A cross between a jet and 'Star Trek' Standing next to SS2, the craft comes across as a hybrid of current and future tech. From the front, it looks like Gulfstream private jet; from the rear, with its massive rear wing “feathers” that help with rotation and re-entry glide, it seems like a Romulan Bird of Prey straight out of Star Trek. But despite the far-out nature of the spaceship, personal touches abound here inside the giant hangar. For example, painted on the side of this SS2 is a shapely model wearing a clear helmet, floating in space. The portrait is said to be based on a 1940s photograph of Branson’s intrepid mother, Eve, now 94. (Eve is also the apt nickname for WK2, the mothership that brings SS2 aloft.) Next to the woman is a logo that clearly looks like an eye’s iris; it is, in fact, an exact copy of the iris belonging to the late Stephen Hawking, who long maintained that space would be the only way for humans to escape extinction. Just across the way from this parked vessel sit the fuselages of two more SS2s in construction, currently dubbed Etta and Artie, the names of Branson’s twin grandchildren from his daughter Holly. Between Etta and Artie and the up-and-flying Unity, Virgin Galactic will have three SS2s able to send a total of 18 people into space on a regular basis. How regular? One flight a week could be possible soon, while the addition of a second WhiteKnightTwo and three more SS2s could allow for three flights a week. But, company officials insist, nothing will be rushed. SS2 is continuing its regular test flights, with so far dozens being held to check its re-entry gliding ability and six with rocket-power. To date, the rockets have burned for as long as 41 seconds, working their way up to the 60-second burn required for Virgin Galactic’s regular parabolic space flights. Galactic CEO: 'Heads down on safety' “We are heads down on safety all the time, otherwise there’s no business model,” says George Whitesides, a former NASA chief of staff under the Obama Administration who joined Virgin Galactic as CEO in 2010. “What we are doing will only help the country’s standing when it comes to space ventures,” he says. “The U.S. leads the world in (rocket) launches, and give us a year and we’ll be leading in human space flight. We will open space up for the rest of us.” And so the work continues here at Virgin Galactic’s compound in the harsh quiet of the California desert. There’s carbon fiber to bake, a spaceship interior to design and aircraft to test and retest. But SS2 pilot Mackay can’t wait for that moment he’s given the green light to launch somewhere high above New Mexico. With every trip into and beyond the stratosphere, he and his fellow pilots are seeing things that cannot be captured by any photo or video, images of space and earth that remain imprinted on his soul. He’s eager to share that view, and see the looks on the faces of his fortunate passengers. “The sky is a matte black, and the earth’s surface is just so bright, and then you see the atmosphere, so thin, like the skin around an apple,” says Mackay. “That’s when it hits you hard, we’re all part of this human race,” he says. “You see, if for a moment, where we humans are in the solar system and it is just, well, to be honest, it’s a feeling I cannot describe.” Source
  11. This week, I settled down to watch the first episode of The 100. If you haven't seen the show, I'll just point out that it takes place in the near future (though it ran, on the CW, in the near past). For reasons that I won't get into, there is a spacecraft with a bunch of teenagers that is traveling from a space station down to the surface of the Earth. During the reentry process, one kid wants to show that he is the master of space travel and that he's awesome. So what does he do? He gets out of his seat and floats around as a demonstration of his mastery of weightlessness. Another teenager points out that he's being pretty dumb—and that he's going to get hurt very soon. OK, that is enough of the description of the scene so that we can talk about physics. The point is that there is one dude "floating" around in the spacecraft during reentry. Before I over-analyze this short scene, let me add a caveat about my philosophy on science and stories. I've talked about this before, so I'll just give a summary: The number one job for a writer of a show is to tell a story. If the writer distorts science in order to make the plot move along—so be it. However, if the science could be correct without destroying the plot, then obviously I'd prefer it. On to the over-analysis! What Causes Gravity? Obviously this scene has to do with gravity, so we should talk about gravity—right? In short, gravity is a fundamental interaction between objects with mass. Yes, any two objects that have mass will have a gravitational force pulling them together. The magnitude of this gravitational force depends on the distance between the objects. The further apart the objects get, the weaker the gravitational force. The magnitude of this force also depends on the masses of the two objects. Greater mass means a greater force. As an equation, this would be written as: In this equation, the masses are described by the variables m1 and m2 and the distance between the objects is the variable r. But the most important thing is the constant G—this is the universal gravitational constant and it has a value of 6.67 x 10-11 Nm2/kg22. That might seem like it's important, so let me give an example that everyone can relate to. Suppose you are standing somewhere and your friend is right there with you and you two are having a conversation. Since you both have mass, there is a gravitational force pulling the two of you together. Using rough approximations for distance and mass, I get an attractive force of 3 x 10-7 Newtons. Just to put that into perspective, this value is fairly close to the force you would feel if you put a grain of salt on your head (yes, I have an approximate value for the mass of one grain of salt). So, the gravitational force is super tiny. The only way we ever notice this force is if one of the interacting objects has a super huge mass—something like the mass of the Earth (5.97 x 1024 kg). If you replace your friend with the Earth and put the distance between you and your friend-Earth as the radius of the Earth, then you get a gravitational force of something like 680 Newtons—and that is a force you can feel (and you do). Is There Gravity in Space? Now for the real question. Why do astronauts float around in space unless there is no gravity? It sure seems like there is no gravity in space—it's even referred to as "zero gravity." OK, I've answered this before, but it's important enough to revisit the question. The short answer is "yes"—there is gravity in space. Look back at the gravitational equation above. What changes in that equation as you move from the surface of the Earth into space? The only difference is the distance between you and the center of the Earth (the r). So as the distance increases, the gravitational force decreases—but by how much does the gravitational force change? How about a quick estimation? Let's use an Earth radius of 6.371 x 106 meters. With this value, a person with a mass of 70 kg would have a gravitational force of 686.7 Newtons. Now moving up to the orbital height of the International Space Station, you would be an extra 400 km farther from the center. Recalculating with this greater distance, I get a weight of 608 Newtons. This is about 88 percent the value on the surface of the Earth (you can check all my calculations here). But you can see there is clearly gravity in space. Oh, here is some extra evidence. Why does the moon orbit the Earth? The answer: gravity. Why does the Earth orbit the Sun? Yup, it's gravity. In both of these cases, there is a significant distance between the two interacting objects—but gravity still "works," even in space. But why do astronauts float around in space? Well, they float around when in orbit—if there was a super tall tower reaching into space, they wouldn't float around. The "weightless" environment is caused by the orbital motion of the people inside a spacecraft or space station. Here is the real deal. If the only force acting on a human is the gravitational force, that human feels weightless. Standing on a tall tower would result in two forces (gravity pulling down and the tower pushing up). In orbit, there is only the gravitational force—leading to that feeling of weightlessness. Actually, you don't even need to be in orbit to feel weightless. You can be weightless by having the gravitational force as the only thing acting on you. Here is a situation for you to consider. Suppose you are standing in a stationary elevator at the top of a building. Since you are at rest, the total force must be zero—that means the downward gravitational force pulling down is balanced by the upward pushing force from the floor. Now remove the force from the floor. Yes, this is difficult but it can be accomplished. Just have the elevator accelerate down with the same acceleration as a free falling object. Now you will be falling inside an elevator. The only force is gravity and you will be weightless. Some people think this falling elevator is fun. That's why many amusement parks have a ride like The Tower of Terror. Basically, you get in a car that drops off a tower. During the fall, you feel weightless—but you don't crash at the bottom. Instead, the car is on a track that somehow slows down more gradually than if it smashed into the ground. They have one of these types of rides at the NASA center in Huntsville. went on this with my kids—it was actually scarier than I had imagined. How about another example? If you are in an airplane and the plane flies with a downward acceleration, everyone inside will be weightless. Even a dog. Check it out. In the end, there seems to be huge misunderstanding about gravity. I believe the reasoning follows like so: Astronauts are weightless in space. There is no air in space. Therefore, if there is no air, there is no gravity. This no-air/no-gravity idea pops up all the time in movies (incorrectly so). Here's how you'll see it: Some dude is floating around in space (that's OK) and then he enters the airlock of a spacecraft, still floating. The airlock door shuts and air is pumped into the chamber and boom—he falls to the ground because now there's gravity. Here is what it should look like—from the epic movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. SPOILER ALERT: Hal is crazy and won't open the pod-bay doors. Not even for Dave. Wow. That scene is pretty much perfect. They even have no sound until the air comes in. What Happens During Reentry? Now back to the events in The 100. The scene doesn't take place in orbit, it occurs during reentry. This is the part where the spacecraft enters back into the atmosphere and encounters an air resistance force (because there is air). Let me start with a simple force diagram showing the spacecraft at some point during this motion. Clearly, this not weightless. Yes, there is a gravitational force acting on everything—but there is also that air drag force that will make the spacecraft slow down as it moves down. If the human is going to stay inside the spacecraft, there must also be an extra force on that human (from the floor). So, not weightless—in fact, the human would feel more than normal gravity because of the acceleration. You already know this, though, because the exact same thing happens to you in an elevator. As the elevator is moving down and coming to a stop, it is also slowing down. During this time, you would feel a little bit heavier because of the force from the floor pushing on you. You aren't really heavier, you just feel that way because of the acceleration. Again, there is another movie example where someone gets this reentry physics right. It's from Apollo 13. Check it out. Notice the water falling from the ceiling. In this case, the capsule is moving downward at an angle. However, the air resistance force is pushing in the opposite direction of motion causing the spacecraft to slow down. But what slows down the water? The water does cling to the surface a little bit—but the acceleration is too much to keep it there and it "falls" towards the astronaut. Note that "falling" here doesn't mean straight towards the surface of the Earth but rather just in the opposite direction as the acceleration. Looking back at the scene from The 100, here's how they could fix the scene—and it's pretty simple. Have the bold floating guy move around before they get to reentry. Then the other guys fall as soon as the spacecraft starts to interact with the atmosphere. That wouldn't even change the plot—and it would be more scientifically accurate. source
  12. This will be the first space shuttle launches from the USA since it retired its space shuttle in 2011. "Today, our country's dreams of greater achievements in space are within our grasp", NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said. Crewed test flights will likely occur next spring, with Chris Ferguson, a Boeing vice president who was the commander of the last shuttle mission, Eric Boe, a former shuttle pilot, and Nicole Aunapu Mann, a former Navy pilot who will be making her first space flight, onboard the Boeing CST-100 Starliner. Ferguson will fly with NASA astronauts Eric Boe, a veteran of two Space Shuttle missions, and Nicole Aunapu Mann on the first crewed test flight of Starliner, which is now projected to take place in mid-2019. The space agency's priority is safe, reliable and cost-effective travel to low-Earth orbit and back (at least for now) for the crewed flight tests called Demo-1 by SpaceX and Orbital Flight Test by Boeing. Both have been in the astronaut corps since 2000; combined, the duo has four Space Shuttle missions and more than 58 days of spaceflight between them. He has logged more than 40 days in space across three space shuttle missions. Bridenstine also introduced the crews of the first missions to the International Space Station by each new craft, which will follow the test flights. Boeing's spacecraft CST-100 Starliner is also expected to be reusable and will launch on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket. NASA is now assigning crew members to these test missions, and will work with both companies and the Eastern range to clear launch dates that will allow all science investigations and other operations on the ISS will not be interrupted. Mr. Behnken, Mr. Hurley, Mr. Boe and Ms. Mann are NASA's first astronauts to be named to the test flights of new USA spacecraft since the March 1978 announcement of the space shuttle's first orbital flight test crews. These test flights will provide invaluable data on how rockets, ground systems, operations and the spacecraft themselves perform. Once the spacecraft is attached to the space station, it's created to stay there for 210 days. SpaceX aims to launch an uncrewed test flight in November of this year, with a Boeing test flight scheduled for late 2018 or early 2019. Then, in July 2015, NASA offered another nugget: Four of its astronauts had been tapped to start training on SpaceX's Crew Dragon and Boeing's Starliner. The spacecraft will dock and undock autonomously to the space station before flying their crew back to Earth. The SpaceX Dragon capsule, on current timelines, is set to make its maiden crewed flight in April. NASA contracted both companies to shuttle astronauts to and from the International Space Station following the retirement of the space shuttle fleet in 2011. The Government Accountability Office said in a recent report that Boeing's spacecraft could "tumble" in some abort scenarios, which "could pose a threat to the crew's safety". SpaceX's Crew Dragon will launch on the company's Falcon 9 rocket. The public-private partnerships fostered by the program will stimulate growth in a robust commercial space industry and spark life-changing innovations for future generations. The seven men and two women pumped their fists in the air and gave thumbs ups as they strode onto the stage to cheers from the crowd. "We won't let you down". < Here >
  13. Canada’s shiny new radio telescope is up and running, and it just heard something very, very odd coming from deep space. The Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment (CHIME for short) is located in British Columbia, and it spends its time listening intently for signals beaming through the vacuum of space. Most of the time, radio telescopes like this don’t hear anything out of the ordinary, but every so often an unexplained signal finds its way through the noise, and that’s exactly what happened on July 25th. A new bulletin from The Astronomer’s Telegram reveals that the new telescope detected what is known as a Fast Radio Burst, or FRB. FRBs aren’t uncommon, but they are quite special in that their origins are completely unknown. FRBs detected by astronomers here on Earth come from incredibly long distances, located so far off in space that we can’t even see what might be creating them. The FRB detected in this case, called FRB 180725A, is particularly unique because it had a frequency as low as 580 Mhz. No FRB has ever been detected below a frequency of 700 Mhz before. While they are radio signals, FRBs don’t hold any information that astronomers or researchers have been able to tap. Some have theorized that they are created by ultra-advanced alien civilizations, but that is little more than sci-fi speculation at the moment. It’s far more likely that FRBs originate from volatile black hole activity, perhaps even two black holes merging into one. One FRB in particular, FRB 121102, has been heard multiple times over the course of several years. Astronomers know it’s the same radio burst because it originates from the exact same point in space every time. Its origin is thought to be a galaxy situated some 3 billion light-years from Earth, and the power it would take for a radio signal to make it that far is absolutely unimaginable. Whatever it is — black holes colliding, a star exploding, or just some aliens having a really loud party — we’ll probably have to wait a long, long time before science can say for certain. < Here >
  14. On the night of July 27 and the early morning hours of July 28, sky-watchers across the Eastern Hemisphere were treated to the longest lunar eclipse of the 21st century. A lunar eclipse occurs when the sun, Earth, and moon are directly aligned, and the moon's orbit brings it into Earth's shadow. The moon passes through the darkest region of Earth's shadow, known as the umbra, which gives the moon a reddish sheen because of the way the sun's light gets refracted by Earth's atmosphere. The event captivated people on Earth, who took stunning photos of the "blood moon" - a term that comes from the red-orange hue the moon takes on during a lunar eclipse. German astronaut Alexander Gerst, who is currently onboard the International Space Station, even watched and photographed the eclipse from his temporary home about 250 miles above Earth. From other vantage points in our solar system, the eclipse would also look remarkable. If someone were standing on the moon during a lunar eclipse, the Earth would appear to be surrounded by a bright-red ring of fire. And NASA's Messenger satellite, which orbited Mercury between 2011 and 2015, provided remarkable footage of what lunar eclipses look like from our solar system's innermost planet. NASA satellites orbiting distant planets occasionally train their cameras on the moon during these celestial events, and Messenger did so during a 2014 lunar eclipse. From there, here's what it looked like: In this timelapse, which was created from 31 images taken two minutes apart, the brighter light is Earth, and the smaller one is the moon. Once the moon is fully in Earth's shadow, it seems to disappear completely. Messenger was the first spacecraft ever to orbit Mercury, but its mission came to an end when NASA intentionally crashed the satellite into the planet in April 2015. If you missed the most recent lunar eclipse, you may get another chance to see one on January 20-21, 2019. < Here >
  15. On the second visit to moon, India hopes to soft land near the south pole of moon and explore the lunar surface with a tiny six-wheeled moon rover and conduct experiments. India's ambitious mission to the moon piggybacking a lunar rover is postponed once again with a possible lift-off only in 2019. The Chandrayan-2 mission was earlier slated for October 2018 and is now rescheduled because of technical glitches. This delay may now give Israel an opportunity to edge past India with its moon landing. Israel through a non-profit company called SpaceIL seeks to launch its moon probe, Sparrow, in December this year. The Israel mission will be using the American Falcon-9 rocket hoping to soft land on the moon on February 13, 2019. It is now a wait and watch game as to who grabs the fourth spot of soft landing on the moon -- India or Israel. Considered to be good friends, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu, both known space buffs, will be urging the nations space agencies to edge past the other. On the second visit to moon, India hopes to soft land near the south pole of moon and explore the lunar surface with a tiny six-wheeled moon rover and conduct experiments. Technical glitches are causing delays at ISRO. Dr M Annadurai, Director of U R Rao Satellite Centre confirmed to NDTV that the launch date for Chandryaan-2 "is slipping to 2019" from the initially planned launch in October this year. Dr Annadurai said that India's moon mission now aims to land in February and the rocket launch will take place in January next year. Moreover, since the weight of the Chandrayaan-2 satellite has increased, Dr Annadurai said that now instead of GSLV MK-II, GSLV MK-III will be used. Geo-synchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle MK-III (GSLV MK-III), also called the 'The Bahubali', is India's heaviest rocket that weighs nearly 640 tons and will be used to hoist the Chandrayaan-2 satellite from India's rocket port at Sriharikota. "The orbiter is fully ready and tested and as far as lander is concerned, it is undergoing tests. It needs four plus one, five thrusters of 800 Newtons which will be used to make it gradually come down and land on the moon surface. These tests are going on in a simulated moon environment," Dr Annadurai told NDTV. He added, "The rover is also being tested in a simulated lunar terrain environment. All things put together we will be able to manage end of this year to roll out all the three combinations from the ISRO Satellite Center in Bengaluru to Sriharikota." Through Chandrayaan-2 India is hoping to assert its independent capability of not only orbiting a satellite but also show its technical prowess of soft landing and then sending a rover on the lunar surface. The rover will leave a permanent imprint of India's flag and emblem on moon's surface. India first sent a spacecraft to the moon in 2008 through Chandrayaan-1 which was essentially an orbiter. But it did crash land on the moon surface through the Moon Impact Probe (MIP) on November 14, 2008, through what is called a hard landing on the lunar surface. ISRO says the MIP would have broken into pieces on crash landing. Till date Russia, the US and China have successfully soft landed on the lunar surface and now India and Israel are racing against each other take the fourth spot in the elite club. The then Soviet Union soft landed on the moon on February 3, 1966 through its Luna-9 spacecraft. It was followed by the United States through its Surveyor-1 spacecraft that soft landed on the moon on June 2, 1966. The next country to independently soft land on the moon was China on December 14, 2013 when its spacecraft Chang'e-3 soft landed a rover called Yutu or 'Jade Rabbit' on the lunar surface. Of course, in between 12 American astronauts visited the lunar surface starting with Neil Armstrong in 1969. As of now India has no plans of sending astronauts or vyomnauts to the moon, but ISRO does harbour ambitions of sending Indians into a low earth orbit some time soon. < Here >
  16. Interest in exploring Earth's nearest neighbor has not been so intense since the days of the Apollo program almost 50 years ago. The 21st-century race back to the moon is no longer limited to the U.S. and Russia, as three other contenders will launch expeditions to the lunar surface later this year. India India plans to launch the Chandrayaan-2, which consists of an orbiter, a lander, and a rover, in October. The lander and rover will touch down near the south pole of the moon and, as the Times of India suggests, go prospecting for resources. The rover will hunt for water, known to reside frozen in the darkened craters of the south polar region of the moon, and helium-3, an isotope that has been deposited on the moon by solar wind over billions of years. He-3 may be a clean (i.e. not radioactive) fuel for future fusion reactors, though the technology to use it is many years off. China Next up, China intends to launch the Chang'e 4 in December, an upgraded version of the Chang'e 3 that landed on the moon five years ago, according to NBC News. The Chinese lander and rover will also land near the lunar south-pole but on the far side of the moon. China has already deployed the Queqiao relay satellite at the Earth-Moon L2 point over the far side so that data and images from the surface probe can be relayed back to Earth. The Chang'e 4 lander will take images and video of its surroundings while the rover will examine the chemistry of the nearby rocks and soil and use ground-penetrating radar to look into the moon's interior. China's has impressive ambitions regarding the moon. Beijing intends to land its own explorers on the lunar surface by the end of the 2020s. Considering China's aggressive, imperialist actions on Earth, particularly in the South China Sea, those plans for the moon are of some concern for American policymakers. Israel The most remarkable mission of all to the moon will also depart in December but will not arrive on the lunar surface until February 2019. SpaceIL, a private group in the State of Israel, is mounting an expedition to the lunar surface, an effort that started as part of the Google Lunar X Prize competition. The competition still officially exists, but the cash prize has now been eliminated. The science part of the SpaceIL mission is more modest than those of India or China, according to the Times of Israel. The probe will take images and video of the surrounding area, plant the Israeli flag, and measure the moon's magnetic field. However, the significance of the Israeli mission resides in the fact that it is almost entirely privately financed and operated. The mission is designed to ignite an "Apollo effect" to inspire investment in STEM businesses and education and to put Israel on the map as a significant space power. What about the two nations that conducted the original race to the moon? Russia's space program, as Ars Technica reports, has seen better days. Russia still has significant space dreams but lacks the money to pay for them. The once-awesome Russian space program, whose feats in the early 1960s first inspired President John F. Kennedy to throw down the gauntlet of the first moon race, is in survival mode. The United States has turned its attention back toward the moon but finds itself lagging behind thanks to former President Barack Obama's ill-considered decision to close down lunar exploration in 2010. Lacking Apollo-level budgets, NASA is starting to form alliances with commercial companies, such as Moon Express and Astrobotic, to carry its scientific instruments to the lunar surface. The earliest American expedition back to the moon may happen by the end of 2019. However, the United States has big plans for the moon, hoping to send people back to the lunar surface within a decade. Leading an international and commercial coalition, NASA intends to build a space station called the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway in orbit around the moon and a lunar surface base. The United States sees the moon as not only a gateway to Mars, but also a worthy destination in its own right, for both science and commerce. In any event, the moon is about to become a very busy place as the world community reaches out to take advantage of the opportunities it offers. < Here >
  17. A decade after the U.S. Air Force commissioned the next generation of GPS satellites, the first of these spacecraft is finally set to launch into orbit later this year. As with other national security missions, a roughly 200-foot-tall rocket will blast the massive satellite to space, fulfilling a contract worth more than $80 million. But as nations develop technology to disable or shoot down satellites — as China did to one of its own satellites with a ground-based ballistic missile in 2007 — the U.S. military has started to look at options for rapidly and cheaply launching smaller crafts into space. An experimental program spearheaded by a Pentagon research agency could eventually be part of that solution. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, along with aerospace giant Boeing Co., is developing a reusable spaceplane expected to launch small satellites 10 times in 10 days. The vehicle’s first test flight is set for 2021, which hints at the Defense Department’s growing interest in reusable rocket technology, particularly its potential to drive down launch costs and speed up turnaround time. In recent weeks, the spaceplane’s rocket engine, known as the AR-22, completed 10 test fires in 240 hours without need for refurbishments or major repairs, said Jeff Haynes, program manager at Aerojet Rocketdyne. The test firing took place at NASA Stennis Space Center in Mississippi from June 26 to July 6. The engine test is “really good progress,” said Claire Leon, director of Loyola Marymount University’s graduate program in systems engineering and former director of the launch enterprise directorate at the U.S. Air Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center. “SpaceX has had its success,” she said. “I think this engine test also demonstrates that other companies are doing the technology development and having success that will enable reusability.” The title of first reusable system belongs to NASA’s Space Shuttle, though more recently, several commercial space firms, including Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s Stratolaunch and British billionaire Richard Branson’s Virgin Orbit, have developed systems that would reuse aircraft to launch satellites from the belly of a plane. Amazon.com Inc. Chief Executive Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space firm also has reused its New Shepard rocket and space-capsule system numerous times. Elon Musk’s SpaceX brought the concept of reusability back into the public eye with its 13 flights of used first-stage boosters since 2017, though DARPA and Boeing officials say the experimental spaceplane is aimed at a much lighter weight class of satellites. SpaceX’s workhorse Falcon 9 rocket is capable of carrying payloads of about 50,000 pounds to low-Earth orbit. Scott Wierzbanowski, experimental spaceplane program manager at DARPA, described it as a “launch on demand” kind of service, in which smaller satellites could be taken to a specific orbit when they need to, rather than piggybacking onto scheduled launches that revolve around the needs of the larger, primary payload. “The military right now is really reassessing their needs,” said Bill Ostrove, aerospace and defense analyst at Forecast International. “DARPA is trying to see what is possible.” The Air Force has also developed the X-37B experimental space plane, which looks like a smaller version of the space shuttle orbiter. Details of its missions are scarce, but the uncrewed robotic space plane’s last mission involved 718 days in orbit before returning to Earth. Southern California has played a role in the DARPA spaceplane’s development, with some design work, engineering and program management taking place in the region, largely at Boeing’s Huntington Beach facility, but also in Seal Beach and El Segundo. Engineering staff for the rocket engine, manufactured by Aerojet Rocketdyne, are based in Canoga Park. The 100-foot-long vehicle with a 62-foot wingspan is being designed for rapid reusability similar to that of commercial aircraft, program officials said. The spaceplane, however, will launch vertically like a typical rocket, deploy an expendable second-stage booster that will push the satellite to its intended orbit and then return to Earth and land horizontally like a plane on a runway. To do this, Boeing has leaned on its commercial aircraft division. The composite materials used for the spaceplane’s fuel tanks, wing skins and other areas were based on investments made during development of the company’s 787 jetliner, which has an outer structure largely made of composites. The spaceplane’s design approach was also derived from commercial aircraft to make the vehicle easier to maintain and operate, said Steve Johnston, director of launch at Boeing Phantom Works. The vehicle’s engine is composed of flight-qualified and previously used hardware flown on previous engines and is derived from the legacy engines that powered NASA’s Space Shuttle. The spaceplane is expected to launch satellites to low-Earth orbit weighing up to 3,000 pounds. That means the spacecraft would be well below the weight of the typical school bus-sized spy satellites that are launched to a higher, geostationary orbit. But they would be heavier than satellites weighing hundreds of pounds that are envisioned as the core of commercial constellations — of hundreds or even thousands of spacecraft — to provide broadband or Earth-imaging capabilities. DARPA recently launched a separate challenge focused on commercial small-satellite launch companies, providing cash prizes for teams that can launch tiny payloads with minimal notice. Wierzbanowski of DARPA said he could envision the two programs working together and said their focuses were “complementary.” Total government funding for the spaceplane program is estimated at $146 million. Boeing declined to disclose its investment, saying only that it was a “significant commitment.” The ultimate goal is to reach a per-launch cost of $5 million, Wierzbanowski said. That could make the spaceplane, once operational, significantly cheaper than the existing rockets already aimed at the medium-sized satellite market, including India’s PSLV, Europe’s Arianespace Vega and Northrop Grumman Corp.’s Minotaur IV. The launch price for a Minotaur or Vega rocket can range from $35 million to $40 million, said Phil Smith, senior space analyst at Bryce Space and Technology. Boeing plans to commercialize the spaceplane, which it calls the Phantom Express, offering it to government and commercial customers. But the unique design concept is no guarantee of success, Smith said. “The engine test was spot on in terms of the expectations for that engine to support the mission,” he said. “But it does remain to be seen.” < Here >
  18. The last time a person visited the moon was in December 1972, during NASA's Apollo 17 mission. Over the decades, NASA planned to send people back to the moon but has yet to succeed. Astronauts often say the biggest reasons why humans haven't returned to the lunar surface are budgetary and political hurdles — not scientific or technical challenges. Private companies like Blue Origin or SpaceX may be the first entities to return people to the moon. Landing 14 people on the moon remains one of NASA's greatest achievements, if not the greatest. Astronauts collected rocks, took photos, performed experiments, planted some flags, and then came home. But those week-long stays during the Apollo program didn't establish a lasting human presence on the moon. More than 45 years after the most recent crewed moon landing — Apollo 17 in December 1972 — there are plenty of reasons to return people to Earth's giant, dusty satellite and stay there. Researchers and entrepreneurs think a crewed base on the moon could evolve into a fuel depot for deep-space missions, lead to the creation of unprecedented space telescopes, make it easier to live on Mars, and solve longstanding scientific mysteries about Earth and the moon's creation. A lunar base could even become a thriving off-world economy, perhaps one built around lunar space tourism. "A permanent human research station on the moon is the next logical step. It's only three days away. We can afford to get it wrong, and not kill everybody," former astronaut Chris Hadfield recently told Business Insider. "And we have a whole bunch of stuff we have to invent and then test in order to learn before we can go deeper out." But many astronauts and other experts suggest the biggest impediments to crewed moon missions over the last four-plus decades have been banal if not depressing. It's really expensive to get to the moon — but not that expensive A tried-and-true hurdle for any spaceflight program, especially for missions that involve people, is the steep cost. A law signed in March 2017 by President Donald Trump gives NASA an annual budget of about $19.5 billion, and it may rise to $19.9 billion in 2019. Either amount sounds like a windfall — until you consider that the total gets split among all of the agency's divisions and ambitious projects: the James Webb Space Telescope, the giant rocket project called Space Launch System, and far-flung missions to the sun, Jupiter, Mars, the Asteroid Belt, the Kuiper Belt, and the edge of the solar system. (By contrast, the US military gets a budget of about $600 billion per year. One project within that budget — the modernization and now expansion of America's nuclear arsenal— may even cost as much as $1.7 trillion over 30 years.) Plus, NASA's budget is somewhat small relative to its past. "NASA's portion of the federal budget peaked at 4% in 1965. For the past 40 years it has remained below 1%, and for the last 15 years it has been driving toward 0.4% of the federal budget," Apollo 7 astronaut Walter Cunningham said during a 2015 congressional testimony. Trump's budget calls for a return to the moon, and then later an orbital visit to Mars. But given the ballooning costs and snowballing delays related to NASA's SLS rocket program, there may not be enough funding to make it to either destination, even if the International Space Station gets defunded early. A 2005 report by NASA estimated that returning to the moon would cost about $104 billion (which is $133 billion today, with inflation) over about 13 years. The Apollo program cost about $120 billion in today's dollars. "Manned exploration is the most expensive space venture and, consequently, the most difficult for which to obtain political support," Cunningham said during his testimony, according to Scientific American. "Unless the country, which is Congress here, decided to put more money in it, this is just talk that we're doing here." Referring to Mars missions and a return to the moon, Cunningham added, "NASA's budget is way too low to do all the things that we've talked about doing here." The problem with presidents The Trump administration's immediate goal is to get astronauts to "the vicinity of the moon" sometime in 2023. That would be toward the end of what could be Trump's second term if he is reelected. And therein lies another major problem: partisan political whiplash. "Why would you believe what any president said about a prediction of something that was going to happen two administrations in the future?" Hadfield said. "That's just talk." From the perspective of astronauts, it's about the mission. The process of designing, engineering, and testing a spacecraft that could get people get to another world easily outlasts a two-term president. But there's a predictable pattern of incoming presidents and lawmakers scrapping the previous leader's space-exploration priorities. "I would like the next president to support a budget that allows us to accomplish the mission that we are asked to perform, whatever that mission may be," astronaut Scott Kelly, who spent a year in space, wrote during a January 2016 Reddit Ask Me Anything session (before Trump took office). But presidents and Congress don't seem to care about staying the course. In 2004, for example, the Bush administration tasked NASA with coming up with a way to replace the space shuttle, which was due to retire, and also return to the moon. The agency came up with the Constellation program to land astronauts on the moon, using a rocket called Ares and a spaceship called Orion. NASA spent $9 billion over five years designing, building, and testing hardware for that human spaceflight program. Yet after President Barack Obama took office — and the Government Accountability Office released a report about NASA's inability to estimate Constellation's cost— Obama pushed to scrap the program and signed off on the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket instead. Trump hasn't scrapped SLS. But he did change Obama's goal of launching astronauts to an asteroid to moon and Mars missions. Such frequent changes to NASA's expensive priorities has led to cancellation after cancellation, a loss of about $20 billion, and years of wasted time and momentum. "I'm disappointed that they're so slow and trying to do something else," Apollo 8 astronaut Jim Lovell told Business Insider in 2017. "I'm not excited about anything in the near future. I'll just see things as they come." Buzz Aldrin said in a 2015 testimony to Congress that he believes the will to return to the moon must come from Capitol Hill. "American leadership is inspiring the world by consistently doing what no other nation is capable of doing. We demonstrated that for a brief time 45 years ago. I do not believe we have done it since," Aldrin wrote in a prepared statement. "I believe it begins with a bi-partisan Congressional and Administration commitment to sustained leadership." The real driving force behind that government commitment to return to the moon is the will of the American people, who vote for politicians and help shape their policy priorities. But public interest in lunar exploration has always been lukewarm. Even at the height of the Apollo program — after Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped onto the lunar surface — only 53% of Americans thought the program was worth the cost. Most of the rest of the time, US approval of Apollo hovered significantly below 50%. Today, 55% of Americans think NASA should make returning to the moon a priority, though only a quarter of those believers think it should be a top priority, according to a Pew Research Center poll released in June. But 44% of people surveyed by the poll think sending astronauts back to the moon shouldn't be done at all. Support for crewed Mars exploration is stronger, with 63% believing it should be a NASA priority, and 91% of people think scanning the skies for killer asteroids is important. The challenges beyond politics The political tug-of-war over NASA's mission and budget isn't the only reason people haven't returned to the moon. The moon is also a 4.5-billion-year-old death trap for humans, and must not be trifled with or underestimated. Its surface is littered with craters and boulders that threaten safe landings. Leading up to the first moon landing in 1969, the US government spent what would be billions in today's dollars to develop, launch, and deliver satellites to the moon to could map its surface and help mission planners scout for possible Apollo landing sites. But a bigger worry is what eons of meteorite impacts has created: regolith, also called moon dust. Madhu Thangavelu, an aeronautical engineer at the University of Southern California, wrote in 2014 that the moon is covered in "a fine, talc-like top layer of lunar dust, several inches deep in some regions, which is electro-statically charged through interaction with the solar wind and is very abrasive and clingy, fouling up spacesuits, vehicles and systems very quickly." Peggy Whitson, an astronaut who lived in space for a total of 665 days, recently told Business Insider that the Apollo missions "had a lot of problems with dust." "If we're going to spend long durations and build permanent habitats, we have to figure out how to handle that," Whitson said. There's also a problem with sunlight. For 14.75 days at a time, the lunar surface is a boiling hellscape that is exposed directly to the sun's harsh rays — the moon has no protective atmosphere. The next 14.75 days are in total darkness, making the moon's surface one of the coldest places in the universe. A small nuclear reactor being developed by NASA, called Kilopower, could supply astronauts with electricity during weeks-long lunar nights — and would be useful on other worlds, including Mars. "There is not a more environmentally unforgiving or harsher place to live than the moon," Thangavelu wrote. "And yet, since it is so close to the Earth, there is not a better place to learn how to live, away from planet Earth." NASA has designed dust- and sun-resistant spacesuits and rovers, though it's uncertain if that equipment is anywhere near ready to launch, as some of it was part of the now-canceled Constellation program. A generation of billionaire 'space nuts' may get there A suite of moon-capable rockets is on the horizon. "There's this generation of billionaires who are space nuts, which is great," astronaut Jeffrey Hoffman told journalists during a roundtable earlier this year. "The innovation that's been going on over the last 10 years in spaceflight never would've happened if it was just NASA and Boeing and Lockheed. Because there was no motivation to reduce the cost or change the way we do it." Hoffman is referring to the work by Elon Musk and his rocket company, SpaceX, as well as that of Jeff Bezos, who runs a secretive aerospace company called Blue Origin. "There's no question — if we're going to go farther, especially if we're going to go farther than the moon — we need new transportation," Hoffman added. "Right now we're still in the horse-and-buggy days of spaceflight." Many astronauts' desire to return to the moon fits into Bezos' long-term vision. Bezos has floated a plan around Washington to start building the first moon base using Blue Origin's upcoming New Glenn rocket system. In April, he said, "we will move all heavy industry off of Earth, and Earth will be zoned residential and light industry." Musk has also spoken at length about how SpaceX's in-development "Big Falcon Rocket" could pave the way for affordable, regular lunar visits. SpaceX might even visit the moon before NASA or Blue Origin. The company's new Falcon Heavy rocket is capable of launching a small Crew Dragon space capsule past the moon and back to Earth— and Musk has said two private citizens have already paid a large deposit to go on the voyage. "My dream would be that, some day, the moon would become part of the economic sphere of the Earth — just like geostationary orbit and low-Earth orbit," Hoffman said. "Space out as far as geostationary orbit is part of our everyday economy. Some day I think the moon will be, and that's something to work for." Astronauts don't doubt we'll get back to the moon, and on to Mars. It's just a matter of when. "I guess eventually, things will come to pass where they will go back to the moon and eventually go to Mars, probably not in my lifetime," Lovell said. "Hopefully they'll be successful." < Here >
  19. After months of testing, a SpaceX Dragon capsule that’s designed to carry astronauts to and from the International Space Station has arrived in Florida, marking a significant step toward this summer’s scheduled test launch. Even though the vehicle is called a “Crew Dragon,” this Dragon won’t carry crew on its first flight. Instead, it’s due to make an uncrewed practice run to the space station during what’s known as Demonstration Mission 1, or DM-1. Before this week’s shipment to Florida, the Dragon underwent thermal vacuum tests as well as acoustic tests at NASA’s Plum Brook Station in Ohio. Today SpaceX showed off a picture of the Crew Dragon, which is a redesigned, beefed-up version of its robotic cargo-carrying Dragon, via Twitter and Instagram. NASA’s current schedule calls for SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket to launch the DM-1 mission next month from Kennedy Space Center. However, that schedule is dependent not only on the pace of preparations, but also on the timetable for station arrivals and departures. After several weeks, the Crew Dragon would unhook from the station and descend back down to Earth, still uncrewed, for a Pacific splashdown and recovery. SpaceX will follow up on DM-1 with an in-flight abort test, and eventually with a crewed demonstration flight to the space station, known as DM-2. Meanwhile, Boeing is moving ahead with work on its own space taxi, the CST-100 Starliner. The first three Starliner spacecraft are undergoing a variety of tests in preparation for this year’s first uncrewed flight to the space station. A crewed flight will follow, and NASA has the option of extending that flight to fit the station’s needs. It’s not yet clear whether the Dragon or the Starliner will fly astronauts to the station first. Those spacefliers will be in a position to claim the U.S. flag that was left behind in 2011 by the shuttle Atlantis’ crew for the next crew to be launched from U.S. soil. After the crewed demonstration flights, NASA will have to certify the Dragon and the Starliner for regular trips to and from the space station. This week, the Government Accountability Office issued a report saying that certification may not come until the end of 2019 or perhaps even 2020 — which is significantly later than NASA had anticipated. The GAO recommended that NASA come up with a contingency plan for ensuring there’d be a U.S. presence on the space station even if the space taxis aren’t certified on time. Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft is currently the only means approved for sending spacefliers to the space station. NASA’s access to Soyuz seats is currently due to run out in early 2020. < Here >
  20. Over 40 years ago, a NASA mission may have accidentally destroyed what would have been the first discovery of organic molecules on Mars, according to a report from New Scientist. Recently, NASA caused quite a commotion when it announced that its Curiosity rover discovered organic molecules — which make up life as we know it — on Mars. This followed the first confirmation of organic molecules on Mars in 2014. But because small, carbon-rich meteorites so frequently pelt the Red Planet, scientists have suspected for decades that organics exist on Mars. But researchers were stunned in 1976, when NASA sent two Viking landers to Mars to search for organics for the first time and found absolutely none. Scientists didn't know what to make of the Viking findings — how could there be no organics on Mars? "It was just completely unexpected and inconsistent with what we knew," Chris McKay, a planetary scientist at NASA's Ames Research Center, told New Scientist. A possible explanation arose when NASA's Phoenix lander found perchlorate on Mars in 2008. This is a salt used to make fireworks on Earth; it becomes highly explosive under high temperatures. And while the surface of Mars isn't too warm, the main instrument aboard the Viking landers, the gas chromatograph-mass spectrometer (GCMS), had to heat the Martian soil samples to find organic molecules. And because perchlorate is in the soil, the instrument would have burned up any organics in the samples during this process. The discovery of perchlorate reignited scientists' convictions that the Viking landers could have found organics on Mars. "You get some new insight, and you realize that everything you thought was wrong," McKay said. However, finding perchlorate didn't provide concrete proof that the Viking landers found and accidentally destroyed organic molecules, so the investigation continued. The variety of organic molecules that Curiosity recently discovered on the Red Planet included chlorobenzene. This molecule is created when carbon molecules burn with perchlorate, so scientists suspect that it could have been created when the soil samples were burnt, according to New Scientist. Researchers were inspired by this indirect evidence to dig a little deeper and find more evidence that the Viking landers could have found and then destroyed organics. In a new study, published in June in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets, Melissa Guzman of the LATMOS research center in France, McKay and a handful of collaborators revisited the Viking lander data to see if anything was missed. This team found that the Viking landers also detected chlorobenzene, which the researchers said could have formed from burning organic material in the soil samples. Still, this is not proof that the Viking landers found organic molecules and then accidentally burned them, the researchers told New Scientist. Even the scientists who completed this investigation are divided. Guzman said she still isn't completely convinced that the chlorobenzene they detected formed when organics in Martian soil were burned. She said that the molecule could have come from Earth aboard NASA equipment. But despite this skepticism, others are convinced; "this paper really seals the deal," Daniel Glavin, an astrobiologist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center who was not involved in the study, told New Scientist. < Here >
  21. A rocket engine built from spare space shuttle parts — and the team behind the engine — passed a grueling 10-day, 10-firing test that sets the stage for Boeing’s Phantom Express military space plane. “We scored a perfect 10 last week,” Jeff Haynes, Aerojet Rocketdyne’s program manager for the AR-22 engine, told reporters today during a teleconference. The hydrogen-fueled AR-22 is largely based on the RS-25 engine that was used on the space shuttle and will be used on NASA’s heavy-lift Space Launch System. “We’ve upgraded the ‘brain’ for this derivative mission,” using an advanced controller, Haynes said. Aerojet, Boeing and the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, set up the 240-hour test between June 26 and July 6 to see whether the AR-22 could be turned around rapidly enough for a 100-second, full-throttle firing every day. The bottom line? It can. “We had 68 minutes to spare when we finished the last test,” Haynes said. Along the way, the team had to deal with two direct lightning strikes that damaged the test facility at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi. Engineers also had to work out a procedure to get rid of the moisture that gathered in the engine during firings. “Trying to run the engine again without drying that out would lead to catastrophic events,” Haynes said. At first, the procedure took about 17 hours, but they eventually got the time down to as little as six hours. During the shuttle program, a similar process took days to accomplish, Haynes said. Thanks to the successful test, the Phantom Express program — also known as the Experimental Spaceplane or XS-1 — is on track for an initial demonstration flight in 2021, said Steve Johnston, director of launch at Boeing Phantom Works. Scott Wierzbanowski, DARPA’s program manager for the Experimental Spaceplane, said the two-stage launch system is being designed for 10 liftoffs in 10 days. After each launch, the reusable first-stage booster would glide to an airplane-like landing. Phantom Express should be capable of delivering 3,000 pounds of payload to low Earth orbit at a cost of less than $5 million a flight. Those performance levels represent a “sweet spot” for military as well as commercial applications, Wierzbanowski said. Boeing’s Johnston said the specifications for the Phantom Express plane are going through critical design review, leading up to the start of assembly in mid-2019. “A lot of our design philosophies and design guidelines are actually derived from the commercial airplane business,” he said. “The materials system that we’re using is actually the materials system that was originally developed for application on the all-composite 787.” The liquid-oxygen tank already has been fabricated at Boeing’s Advanced Developmental Composite Facility in the Seattle area. “It went really well. … We have some additional outfitting to do to that tank,” Johnston said. The design of the plane’s upper stage is still in flux, and the launch site for the first demonstration flight in 2021 has not yet been selected. That initial suborbital flight will test only the first-stage booster, Johnston said. DARPA is providing up to $146 million for the project, with Boeing and Aerojet kicking in an additional unspecified amount for development. Haynes said the lessons learned from the 10-day engine test could be applied not only to the Phantom Express, but also to Aerojet’s work on the RS-25 engines for the Space Launch System. For example, the SLS could benefit from a sensor-based performance-monitoring system that was tested on the AR-22, known as the Advanced Anomaly Command and Control Center, or AC3. “We actually tricked the engine to thinking it was experiencing a red-line condition, which under the shuttle program would have been an immediate shutdown of the engine,” Haynes said. “We allowed our software to throttle down the engine automatically, assess the situation and then do a stepwise recovery of the thrust profile in a matter of seconds.” Aerojet is pioneering a new generation of engineering for Phantom Express and the Space Launch System — with the aid of a new generation of engineers, Haynes said. “We have experienced engineers that really cut their teeth on the shuttle program,” he said. “And we have a large amount of new engineers now that are able to be mentored and trained through the process of this highly aggressive program that we just did through the last two weeks.” Phantom Express by the numbers: Length: 100 feet Wingspan: 62 feet Weight at liftoff, fully fueled: 240,000 pounds AR-22 engine liftoff thrust: More than 375,000 pounds AR-22 propellants: Liquid hydrogen, liquid oxygen Maximum speed: Mach 10 (7,600 mph) < Here >
  22. Soon the company could be launching from New Zealand and American soil Small satellite launch company Rocket Lab says it’s looking to expand its spaceflight operations by creating a new launch pad in the United States. This new site will be the second one for the US-based startup, which already launches its rockets from a private pad in New Zealand. Rocket Lab hasn’t picked a location for the second launch site yet, but has narrowed it down to four places, all at government-run launch facilities. These include the US’s two most prolific spaceports, Cape Canaveral, Florida, and Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The other two sites include Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, as well as the Pacific Spaceport Complex in southern Alaska. Rocket Lab says a final decision will be made in 2018. First, the company needs to work through all the necessary regulatory hurdles and costs, as well as figure out how long construction will take. A new pad will be built specifically for Rocket Lab’s primary vehicle, the Electron. The new site will be dubbed Launch Complex 2 — an appropriate title given that the New Zealand pad is called Launch Complex 1. The first launch from the facility is slated to occur in the first half of 2019, and Rocket Lab says the site will be able to support launches at least once a month. The company has been very clear that it wants to launch its rockets as frequently as possible, eventually sending up a vehicle every three days. This second site could help Rocket Lab better achieve that goal by allowing for more frequent flights to space. “Launching from US soil adds an extra layer of flexibility for our government and commercial customers, offering an unmatched ability to rapidly deploy space-based assets with confidence and precision,” Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck said in a statement. Rocket Lab’s Electron is a relatively small rocket that stands at just 55 feet tall, about the size of a five-story building. Its sole purpose is to be a dedicated ride for small satellites, as the rocket can only carry payloads between 330 and 500 pounds into low Earth orbit. It’s a light load compared to SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, for instance, which can get around 50,000 pounds of cargo into the same orbit. So far, the company has conducted two test launches of the Electron. Both times, the rocket made it to space, though the second flight was the only one to achieve orbit. Now, Rocket Lab is in the middle of transitioning to full commercial operations, which is proving somewhat tricky. The company has tried twice to launch its first commercial flight, which will carry five small satellites to orbit for four different customers. However, both of those attempts had to be postponed as Rocket Lab identified some strange behavior with one of the Electron’s motors. The company is working to fix the issue but has not announced a new date for the mission. < Here >
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