Friday, November 22, 2019

MEASAT selects Arianespace for launch of MEASAT-3d

Arianespace and MEASAT Global Berhad (MEASAT), the leading Malaysian satellite operator, has announced the signature of a launch services contract for MEASAT-3d. MEASAT-3d, a new multi-mission telecommunications satellite, will be launched into geostationary transfer orbit by an Ariane 5 heavy-lift launch vehicle from the Guiana Space Center, Europe's Spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana (South America) in 2021. MEASAT, the leading Malaysian satellite operator, operates five satellites, providing coverage over Asia, Middle East, Africa, Europe and Australia. MEASAT-3d will serve the growth requirements of 4G and 5G mobile networks in Malaysia while continuing to provide redundancy and additional distribution capacity for video in HD, 4K, and ultimately 8K in the Asia-Pacific region. The satellite will weigh approximately 5,734 kg. at launch, and offers an operational life of 19 years. When positioned at 91.5 degrees East, MEASAT-3d will be co-located with MEASAT-3a and MEASAT-3b satellites to replace and enhance capacity in Malaysia, Asia, Middle East and Africa. The new MEASAT-3d satellite will carry multiple payload types: C- and Ku-band payloads for direct-to-home television broadcasting and other telecom services, as well as a high-throughput Ka-band payload for internet connectivity. MEASAT-3d also will carry an L-band navigation payload for Korean satellite operator Kt sat as part of the Korea Augmentation Satellite System.

Airbus Defence and Space built MEASAT-3d using the Eurostar E3000 satellite platform.

Commenting on this latest contract, Arianespace Chief Executive Officer Stephane Israel said: "We are honoured that MEASAT entrusted the launch of MEASAT-3d to Arianespace, renewing a long standing partnership with this Malaysian operator that dates back to 1996.

With one new commercial success for Ariane 5, the Ariane family reasserts itself as the best-suited solution to reach the geostationary orbit, just a few weeks before the 40 years of Ariane and before the advent of Ariane 6 in 2020!"

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Exoplanet axis study boosts hopes of complex life, just not next door

"They're out there," goes a saying about extraterrestrials. It would seem more likely to be true in light of a new study on planetary axis tilts. Astrophysicists at the Georgia Institute of Technology modeled a theoretical twin of Earth into other star systems called binary systems because they have two stars. They concluded that 87% of exo-Earths one might find in binary systems should have axis tilts similarly steady to Earth's, an important ingredient for climate stability that favors the evolution of complex life. "Multiple-star systems are common, and about 50% of stars have binary companion stars. So, this study can be applied to a large number of solar systems," said Gongjie Li, the study's co-investigator an assistant professor at Georgia Tech's School of Physics. Single-star solar systems like our own with multiple planets appear to be rarer. The researchers started out contrasting how the Earth's axis tilt, also called obliquity, varies over time with the variation of Mars' axis tilt. Whereas our planet's mild obliquity variations have been great for a livable climate and for evolution, the wild variations of Mars' axis tilt may have helped wreck its atmosphere, as explained in the section below. Then the researchers modeled Earth into habitable, or Goldilocks, zones in Alpha Centauri AB - our solar system's nearest neighbor, a binary system with one star called "A" and the other "B." After that, they expanded the model to a more universal scope.

"We simulated what it would be like around other binaries with multiple variations of the stars' masses, orbital qualities, and so on," said Billy Quarles, the study's principal investigator and a research scientist in Li's lab. "The overall message was positive but not for our nearest neighbor."

Alpha Centauri A actually didn't look bad, but the outlook for mild axis dynamics on an exo-Earth modeled around star B was wretched. This may douse some hopes because Alpha Centauri AB is four lightyears away, and a mission named Starshot with big-name backers plans to launch a space probe to look for signs of advanced life there.

The researchers are publishing their study, which was co-led by Jack Lissauer from NASA Ames Research Center, in Astrophysical Journal on November 19, 2019, under the title: "Obliquity Evolution of Circumstellar Planets in Sun-like Stellar Binaries." The research was funded by the NASA Exobiology Program.

No exoplanets have been confirmed around A or B; an exoplanet has been confirmed around the nearby red dwarf star Proxima Centauri, but it is very likely to be uninhabitable.

Earth? Just right
Even with its ice ages and hot phases, Earth's climatological framework has been calm for hundreds of millions of years - in part because of its mild orbital and axis-tilt dynamics - allowing evolution to take big strides. Wildly varying dynamics, and thus climate, like on Mars would stand to regularly kill off advanced life, stunting evolution.

Earth's orbit around the sun is on a slight incline that seesaws gently and very slowly through a slight precession, a kind of oscillation. As Earth revolves, it shifts position relative to the sun, circling it a little like a spirograph drawing. The orbit also precesses in shape between slightly more and slightly less oblong over 100,000-year periods.

Earth's axis tilt precesses between 22.1 and 24.5 degrees over the course of 41,000 years. Our large moon stabilizes our tilt through its gravitational relationship with Earth, otherwise, bouncy gravitational interconnections with Mercury, Venus, Mars, and Jupiter would jolt our tilt with resonances.

"If we didn't have the moon, Earth's tilt could vary by about 60 degrees," Quarles said. "We'd look maybe like Mars, and the precession of its axis appears to have helped deplete its atmosphere."

Mars' axis precesses between 10 degrees and 60 degrees every 2 million years. At the 10-degree tilt, the atmosphere condenses at the poles, creating caps that lock up a lot of the atmosphere in ice. At 60 degrees, Mars could grow an ice belt around its equator.

Universe? Hopeful
In Alpha Centauri AB, star B, about the size of our sun, and the larger star, A, orbit one another at about the distance between Uranus and our sun, which is a very close for two stars in a binary system. The study modeled variations of an exo-Earth orbiting either star but concentrated on a modeled Earth orbit in the habitable zone centered around B, with A being the orbiting star.

A's orbit is very elliptical, passing close by and then moving very far away from B and slinging powerful gravity, which, in the model, overpowered exo-Earth's own dynamics. Its tilt and orbit varied widely; adding our moon to the model didn't help.

"Around Alpha Centauri B, if you don't have a moon, you have a more stable axis than if you do have a moon. If you have a moon, it's pretty much bad news," Quarles said.

Even without a moon and with mild axis variability, complex, Earthlike evolution would seem to have a hard time on the modeled exo-Earth around B.

"The biggest effect you would see is differences in the climate cycles related to how elongated the orbit is. Instead of having ice ages every 100,000 years like on Earth, they may come every 1 million years, be worse, and last much longer," Quarles said.

But a sliver of hope for Earthlike conditions turned up in the model: "Planetary orbit and spin need to precess just right relative to the binary orbit. There is this tiny sweet spot," Quarles said.

When the researchers expanded the model to binary systems in the universe, the probability of gentle obliquity variations ballooned.

"In general, the separation between the stars is larger in binary systems, and then the second star has less of an effect on the model of Earth. The planet's own motion dynamics dominate other influences, and obliquity usually has a smaller variation," Li said. "So, this is quite optimistic."

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Arianespace will orbit TIBA-1 and Inmarsat GX5 with Ariane 5

On its fourth flight with Ariane 5 in 2019, Arianespace will orbit two telecommunications satellites at the service of long-term customers: TIBA-1 for Thales Alenia Space and Airbus Defence and Space, on behalf of the Government of Egypt; and the GX5 satellite for the operator Inmarsat. Through this mission, Arianespace highlights its ability to be at the service of innovative satellite solutions for commercial and institutional needs. VA250 will be the 250th launch of an Ariane rocket, which lifted off for the first time on December 24, 1979. Flight VA250 will be performed from Ariane Launch Complex No. 3 (ELA 3) in Kourou, French Guiana. The Launch Readiness Review (LRR) will take place on Wednesday, November 20, 2019 in Kourou to authorize the start of operations for the final countdown. TIBA-1 is a civil and government telecommunication satellite for Egypt. It was developed by Thales Alenia Space and Airbus Defence and Space as co-prime contractors, with Thales Alenia Space acting as the consortium's lead partner. TIBA-1 will be owned and operated by the government of Egypt. TIBA-1 will be the fourth satellite launched by Arianespace for Egypt. It will be deployed by Arianespace into geostationary transfer orbit (GTO), subsequently transitioning to its operational orbital slot position at 35.5 East. Airbus Defence and Space is Arianespace's direct customer for this mission, continuing a fruitful cooperation between the two companies that extends back to Arianespace's creation in 1980.

GX5 is a mobile communications satellite built by Thales Alenia Space for Inmarsat. Inmarsat's fifth Ka-band Global Xpress (GX) satellite, GX5 will be the most advanced in the GX fleet, which in less than four years has become the gold standard for seamless, globally available, mobile broadband services.

Located in a geostationary orbit at 11 East, GX5 will deliver greater capacity than the entire existing GX fleet (GX1-GX4) combined and will support the rapid growth in customer demand for GX services in Europe and the Middle East, particularly for aviation passenger Wi-Fi and commercial maritime services.

This is the 10th time that Inmarsat has chosen Arianespace's launch services, demonstrating a well-established trust - with the two companies' relationship dating back to 1981.

Saturday, November 16, 2019

NASA sending solar power generator developed at Ben-Gurion to ISS

A new solar power generator prototype developed by Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU) and research teams in the United States, will be deployed on the first 2020 NASA flight launch to the International Space Station. According to research published in Optics Express, the compact, microconcentrator photovoltaic system could provide unprecedented watt per kilogram of power critical to lowering costs for private space flight. As the total costs of a launch are decreasing, solar power systems now represent a larger fraction than ever of total system cost. Optical concentration can improve the efficiency and reduce photovoltaic power costs, but has traditionally been too bulky, massive and unreliable for space use. Together with U.S. colleagues, Prof. (Emer.) Jeffrey Gordon of the BGU Alexandre Yersin Department of Solar Energy and Environmental Physics, Jacob Blaustein Institutes for Desert Research, developed this first-generation prototype (1.7 mm wide) that is slightly thicker than a sheet of paper (.10 mm) and slightly larger than a U.S. quarter. "These results lay the groundwork for future space microconcentrator photovoltaic systems and establish a realistic path to exceed 350 w/kg specific power at more than 33% power conversion efficiency by scaling down to even smaller microcells," the researchers say. "These could serve as a drop-in replacement for existing space solar cells at a substantially lower cost."

A second generation of more efficient solar cells now being fabricated at the U.S. Naval Research Labs is only 0.17 mm per side, 1.0 mm thick and will increase specific power even further. If successful, future arrays will be planned for private space initiatives, as well as space agencies pursuing new missions that require high power for electric propulsion and deep space missions, including to Jupiter and Saturn.

Thursday, November 14, 2019

With Mars methane mystery unsolved, Curiosity serves scientists a new one: oxygen

For the first time in the history of space exploration, scientists have measured the seasonal changes in the gases that fill the air directly above the surface of Gale Crater on Mars. As a result, they noticed something baffling: oxygen, the gas many Earth creatures use to breathe, behaves in a way that so far scientists cannot explain through any known chemical processes. Over the course of three Mars years (or nearly six Earth years) an instrument in the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) portable chemistry lab inside the belly of NASA's Curiosity rover inhaled the air of Gale Crater and analyzed its composition. The results SAM spit out confirmed the makeup of the Martian atmosphere at the surface: 95% by volume of carbon dioxide (CO2), 2.6% molecular nitrogen (N2), 1.9% argon (Ar), 0.16% molecular oxygen (O2), and 0.06% carbon monoxide (CO). They also revealed how the molecules in the Martian air mix and circulate with the changes in air pressure throughout the year. These changes are caused when CO2 gas freezes over the poles in the winter, thereby lowering the air pressure across the planet following redistribution of air to maintain pressure equilibrium. When CO2 evaporates in the spring and summer and mixes across Mars, it raises the air pressure. Within this environment, scientists found that nitrogen and argon follow a predictable seasonal pattern, waxing and waning in concentration in Gale Crater throughout the year relative to how much CO2 is in the air. They expected oxygen to do the same. But it didn't. Instead, the amount of the gas in the air rose throughout spring and summer by as much as 30%, and then dropped back to levels predicted by known chemistry in fall. This pattern repeated each spring, though the amount of oxygen added to the atmosphere varied, implying that something was producing it and then taking it away.

"The first time we saw that, it was just mind boggling," said Sushil Atreya, professor of climate and space sciences at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Atreya is a co-author of a paper on this topic published on November 12 in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets.

As soon as scientists discovered the oxygen enigma, Mars experts set to work trying to explain it. They first double- and triple-checked the accuracy of the SAM instrument they used to measure the gases: the Quadrupole Mass Spectrometer. The instrument was fine. They considered the possibility that CO2 or water (H2O) molecules could have released oxygen when they broke apart in the atmosphere, leading to the short-lived rise.

But it would take five times more water above Mars to produce the extra oxygen, and CO2 breaks up too slowly to generate it over such a short time. What about the oxygen decrease? Could solar radiation have broken up oxygen molecules into two atoms that blew away into space? No, scientists concluded, since it would take at least 10 years for the oxygen to disappear through this process.

"We're struggling to explain this," said Melissa Trainer, a planetary scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland who led this research. "The fact that the oxygen behavior isn't perfectly repeatable every season makes us think that it's not an issue that has to do with atmospheric dynamics. It has to be some chemical source and sink that we can't yet account for."

To scientists who study Mars, the oxygen story is curiously similar to that of methane. Methane is constantly in the air inside Gale Crater in such small quantities (0.00000004% on average) that it's barely discernable even by the most sensitive instruments on Mars. Still, it's been measured by SAM's Tunable Laser Spectrometer. The instrument revealed that while methane rises and falls seasonally, it increases in abundance by about 60% in summer months for inexplicable reasons. (In fact, methane also spikes randomly and dramatically. Scientists are trying to figure out why.)

With the new oxygen findings in hand, Trainer's team is wondering if chemistry similar to what's driving methane's natural seasonal variations may also drive oxygen's. At least occasionally, the two gases appear to fluctuate in tandem.

"We're beginning to see this tantalizing correlation between methane and oxygen for a good part of the Mars year," Atreya said. "I think there's something to it. I just don't have the answers yet. Nobody does."

Oxygen and methane can be produced both biologically (from microbes, for instance) and abiotically (from chemistry related to water and rocks). Scientists are considering all options, although they don't have any convincing evidence of biological activity on Mars.

Curiosity doesn't have instruments that can definitively say whether the source of the methane or oxygen on Mars is biological or geological. Scientists expect that non-biological explanations are more likely and are working diligently to fully understand them.

Trainer's team considered Martian soil as a source of the extra springtime oxygen. After all, it's known to be rich in the element, in the form of compounds such as hydrogen peroxide and perchlorates. One experiment on the Viking landers showed decades ago that heat and humidity could release oxygen from Martian soil.

But that experiment took place in conditions quite different from the Martian spring environment, and it doesn't explain the oxygen drop, among other problems.

Other possible explanations also don't quite add up for now. For example, high-energy radiation of the soil could produce extra O2 in the air, but it would take a million years to accumulate enough oxygen in the soil to account for the boost measured in only one spring, the researchers report in their paper.

"We have not been able to come up with one process yet that produces the amount of oxygen we need, but we think it has to be something in the surface soil that changes seasonally because there aren't enough available oxygen atoms in the atmosphere to create the behavior we see," said Timothy McConnochie, assistant research scientist at the University of Maryland in College Park and another co-author of the paper.

The only previous spacecraft with instruments capable of measuring the composition of the Martian air near the ground were NASA's twin Viking landers, which arrived on the planet in 1976. The Viking experiments covered only a few Martian days, though, so they couldn't reveal seasonal patterns of the different gases.

The new SAM measurements are the first to do so. The SAM team will continue to measure atmospheric gases so scientists can gather more detailed data throughout each season. In the meantime, Trainer and her team hope that other Mars experts will work to solve the oxygen mystery.

"This is the first time where we're seeing this interesting behavior over multiple years. We don't totally understand it," Trainer said. "For me, this is an open call to all the smart people out there who are interested in this: See what you can come up with."

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

AFRL tests in-house, rapidly developed small engine

The Air Force Research Laboratory demonstrated a new and ultra-responsive approach to turbine engine development with the initial testing of the Responsive Open Source Engine (ROSE) on Nov. 6, 2019, at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. The Aerospace Systems Directorate's ROSE is the first turbine engine designed, assembled, and tested exclusively in-house. The entire effort, from concept initiation to testing, was executed within 13 months. This program responds to Air Force's desire for rapid demonstration of new technologies and faster, less expensive prototypes. "We decided the best way to make a low-cost, expendable engine was to separate the development costs from procurement costs," said Frank Lieghley, Aerospace Systems Directorate Turbine Engine Division senior aerospace engineer and project manager. He explained that because the design and development were conducted in-house, the Air Force owns the intellectual property behind it. Therefore, once the engine is tested and qualified, the Air Force can forego the typical and often slow development process, instead opening the production opportunity to lower-cost manufacturers better able to economically produce the smaller production runs needed for new Air Force platforms.The applications for this class of engine are many and varied, but the development and advancement of platforms that could make use of it has typically been stymied because the engines have been too expensive. Through this effort, AFRL hopes to lower the engine cost to roughly one fourth of the cheapest current alternative, an almost unheard-of price for such technology, thus enabling a new class of air vehicles that can capitalize on the less expensive engine.

"There's no end to what might be done, but it's all enabled by inexpensive production," said Dr. Greg Bloch, Aerospace Systems Directorate Turbine Engine Division chief engineer. "It's the ability to turn the economics of warfare around."

Bloch added that the design and development of this engine was a unique learning opportunity for younger engineers within the directorate. By participating in the entire process, from cradle to grave, junior workforce engineers gained first-hand experience with every aspect of engine development.

"We have a lengthy history of providing technical oversight at a high level to various engine companies as they develop these engines for the U.S. Air Force," said Bloch. "By teaching our people to do this themselves, we're instilling in them a level of gravitas that will serve the Air Force well when we then apply that oversight to the traditional engine manufacturers."

The team says ROSE is more than just a first-of-its-kind engine development project. It represents a shift in thinking about how to do business.

"We're not trying to compete with our commercial partners, we are leveraging an underutilized sector to meet Air Force needs," said Lt. Col. Ionio Andrus, Aerospace Systems Directorate Turbine Engine Division deputy division chief.

Andrus added that by working closely with other AFRL organizations, including the Materials and Manufacturing Directorate and the Air Force Institute of Technology, the team leveraged internal expertise that helped advance the project. Additionally, by starting from scratch and performing all the work themselves, the AFRL team developed new tools and models that will be available for use in future iterations and new engine design projects.

"This is the right project for the issues that AFRL, the Turbine Engine Division, and the Air Force are facing," said Andrus. "There's a lot of goodness here."

Following this test event, the team will use the measured data to validate their newly-developed design tools and will work toward developing a second iteration of the engine that will be smaller and lighter. With the tools and know-how already in place, Lieghley expects the second design to be completed even more quickly than the first.

Bloch calls ROSE another milestone in the Turbine Engine Division's rich legacy in equipping Air Force platforms. However, this one holds a special place in the hearts and minds of the engineers behind it.

"There's not an Air Force engine fielded today whose technology can't be traced back to Turbine Engine Division in-house work," he said. "We'll eventually hand this off to a manufacturer, but this one is all AFRL on the inside."

Saturday, November 9, 2019

First launch of UK OneWeb communications satellites from Baikonur postponed

The first launch of UK communications satellites OneWeb from Russia's Baikonur Cosmodrome was initially supposed to take place on 19 December. The launch of UK OneWeb space internet system satellites from the Baikonur space centre was postponed from December this year to January 2020, three sources in Russia's rocket and space industry revealed. "The launch is being postponed due to the fact that the spacecraft are not ready. Their delivery to Baikonur is delayed from November to December 2019. The planned launch is postponed from 19 December to 23 January," one of the sources said, with two other sources confirming this information. OneWeb plans to create a constellation of satellites that will provide broadband Internet access to users around the world fully covering the Earth's surface. In cooperation with Roscosmos, the UK communications company sent up its first satellites in February and has planned its next two launches for the end of this year and the first half of 2020.

Thursday, November 7, 2019

New payload fairing from RUAG Space enables quieter journey to space

RUAG Space, a leading supplier to the space industry, has successfully developed and tested a new low shock jettison system for payload fairings. This enables a quieter and smoother journey to space for satellites or other payload. The required payload fairings for the European launchers Ariane and VEGA have been produced by RUAG Space in Emmen, Switzerland, since the 1970s. As part of the Future Launchers Preparatory Programme (FLPP) of the European Space Agency (ESA), RUAG Space has developed this new separation and jettison system for payload fairings. "This new solution enables a quieter journey to space", says Peter Guggenbach, CEO RUAG Space. The payload fairing protects the satellite from aerodynamic and thermal loads during flight. After passing through dense atmospheric layers and as soon as the satellite is no longer at risk, the payload fairing is separated from the launch vehicle. As a rule, two pyrotechnic mechanisms are fired to open hinges, allowing the half-shells to separate safely from the payload. "Pyrotechnics is a proven technology, which may generate significant shock during activation and may result in excitation that needs to be considered in the design of the launcher and payload hardware", says Alberto Sanchez Cebrian, Project Manager at RUAG.

Lower development costs and simpler test conditions
The separation and jettison system has a modular design and reduces development costs, as parts can be improved or replaced without affecting the entire system. Testing is easier and the mechanism does not require synchronization.

The tests were carried out at the RUAG Spaces site in Emmen on a 2.6 m long Vega payload fairing. The new system is scalable and could also be used for, for instance, in the European launch vehicle Ariane.

In addition to the successful separation test, a significant noise reduction was achieved. An integrated sound-reducing perforated insulation layer within the sandwich panels of the payload fairing enables noise reduction without increasing mass and volume.

In certain frequency bands this system could replace acoustic absorber mats currently used in payload fairings. Testing and evaluation of this new system will continue in the next phase of the project.

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Numerous polar storms on Saturn analyzed by the UPV/EHU's Planetary Sciences Group

Sanchez-Lavega's work appears under the title 'A complex storm system in Saturn's north polar atmosphere in 2018', and was produced in collaboration with Teresa del Rio-Gaztelurrutia, Jon Legarreta and Ricardo Hueso, lecturers at the Faculty of Engineering in Bilbao, and a large group of scientists of other nationalities. It was an amateur Brazilian astronomer who on 29 March, 2018, captured on telescope a brilliant white spot on the disc of the planet Saturn close to its north pole. A few days later the spot increased in size reaching a length of approximately 4,000 km and became the most noteworthy detail on the disc of the ringed planet. A second spot appeared further north on the planet a few months later, and sequentially over subsequent months, a third and fourth spot; the latter spots were much closer to the polar region on the edge of the famous Saturn hexagon that had never been previously observed. The spots drifted throughout all these months at varying speeds dragged along by the atmospheric winds that blow on Saturn like jet streams Eastwards and Westwards and whose intensity depends on the latitude. While the first spot, located further south at a speed of about 220 km/hour drifted Eastwards, the one located further north drifted at about 20 km/hour Westwards. This led to encounters between them; some passed close to others and in the course of their mutual interaction they generated atmospheric disturbances that spread throughout Saturn's polar region.

The features of the spots suggest that they are storms that burst as a result of convection in the deep water clouds about 200 km below the visible clouds. The hot, humid gas rises forcefully in Saturn's thin, hydrogen atmosphere and forms thick clouds of ammonia, which are the ones seen through the telescope.

"It is the first time that we have seen such a phenomenon of numerous storms at different latitudes. To date, we had seen small isolated storms or else the gigantic, rare ones known as the Great White Spots," said Agustin Sanchez-Lavega, who is leading this study. Strangely enough, the first storm arose inside a cyclonic vortex, according to images prior to the discovery and obtained months before the Cassini spacecraft was disposed of.

Long-lived, high intensity storms
According to the models developed to simulate these storms, their energy is midway between small and gigantic ones, but the mechanism causing them to gradually emerge at different altitudes on the planet is not known, and, more crucially, neither is it known how they manage to keep going for so long.

"On the Earth, storms of this type last a few days at the most, but on Saturn, the first of all the spots remained active for more than seven months," said Sanchez-Lavega. What is more, like the Great White Spots, the fresh storms have only been observed in the northern hemisphere (they've never been spotted in the south) and appear to have been in line with their formation rate of one every 30 to 60 years.

Like other planets with an atmosphere, Saturn is a natural laboratory where it is possible to study the meteorological phenomena taking place on our planet and to test out, under extreme conditions, the models used to explain and predict them.

The study was carried out in wide-ranging international collaboration that has involved the Cassini space mission, which was orbiting the planet until September 2017, the Hubble Space Telescope, the UPV/EHU's PlanetCam camera installed at the Calar Alto Observatory, and a whole network of amateur observers who provided the images allowing the evolution of the phenomenon to be monitored on a day-to-day basis.

Saturday, November 2, 2019

Astronomers catch wind rushing out of galaxy

Exploring the influence of galactic winds from a distant galaxy called Makani, UC San Diego's Alison Coil, Rhodes College's David Rupke and a group of collaborators from around the world made a novel discovery. Published in Nature, their study's findings provide direct evidence for the first time of the role of galactic winds - ejections of gas from galaxies - in creating the circumgalactic medium (CGM). It exists in the regions around galaxies, and it plays an active role in their cosmic evolution. The unique composition of Makani - meaning wind in Hawaiian - uniquely lent itself to the breakthrough findings. "Makani is not a typical galaxy," noted Coil, a physics professor at UC San Diego. "It's what's known as a late-stage major merger - two recently combined similarly massive galaxies, which came together because of the gravitational pull each felt from the other as they drew nearer. Galaxy mergers often lead to starburst events, when a substantial amount of gas present in the merging galaxies is compressed, resulting in a burst of new star births. Those new stars, in the case of Makani, likely caused the huge outflows - either in stellar winds or at the end of their lives when they exploded as supernovae." Coil explained that most of the gas in the universe inexplicably appears in the regions surrounding galaxies - not in the galaxies. Typically, when astronomers observe a galaxy, they are not witnessing it undergoing dramatic events - big mergers, the rearrangement of stars, the creation of multiple stars or driving huge, fast winds.

"While these events may occur at some point in a galaxy's life, they'd be relatively brief," noted Coil. "Here, we're actually catching it all right as it's happening through these huge outflows of gas and dust."

Coil and Rupke, the paper's first author, used data collected from the W. M. Keck Observatory's new Keck Cosmic Web Imager (KCWI) instrument, combined with images from the Hubble Space Telescope and the Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA), to draw their conclusions.

The KCWI data provided what the researchers call the "stunning detection" of the ionized oxygen gas to extremely large scales, well beyond the stars in the galaxy. It allowed them to distinguish a fast gaseous outflow launched from the galaxy a few million year ago, from a gas outflow launched hundreds of millions of years earlier that has since slowed significantly.

"The earlier outflow has flowed to large distances from the galaxy, while the fast, recent outflow has not had time to do so," summarized Rupke, associate professor of physics at Rhodes College.

From the Hubble, the researchers procured images of Makani's stars, showing it to be a massive, compact galaxy that resulted from a merger of two once separate galaxies. From ALMA, they could see that the outflow contains molecules as well as atoms.

The data sets indicated that with a mixed population of old, middle-age and young stars, the galaxy might also contain a dust-obscured accreting supermassive black hole. This suggests to the scientists that Makani's properties and timescales are consistent with theoretical models of galactic winds.

"In terms of both their size and speed of travel, the two outflows are consistent with their creation by these past starburst events; they're also consistent with theoretical models of how large and fast winds should be if created by starbursts. So observations and theory are agreeing well here," noted Coil.

Rupke noticed that the hourglass shape of Makani's nebula is strongly reminiscent of similar galactic winds in other galaxies, but that Makani's wind is much larger than in other observed galaxies.

"This means that we can confirm it's actually moving gas from the galaxy into the circumgalactic regions around it, as well as sweeping up more gas from its surroundings as it moves out," Rupke explained. "And it's moving a lot of it - at least one to 10 percent of the visible mass of the entire galaxy - at very high speeds, thousands of kilometers per second."

Rupke also noted that while astronomers are converging on the idea that galactic winds are important for feeding the CGM, most of the evidence has come from theoretical models or observations that don't encompass the entire galaxy.

"Here we have the whole spatial picture for one galaxy, which is a remarkable illustration of what people expected," he said. "Makani's existence provides one of the first direct windows into how a galaxy contributes to the ongoing formation and chemical enrichment of its CGM."

Thursday, October 31, 2019

D-Orbit and Astrocast sign new agreement for the launch of ten nanosats

Astrocast and D-Orbit have signed an agreement for the launch and deployment in LEO low inclination orbit of ten Astrocast nanosatellites through D-Orbit 's InOrbit NOW Launch Service. The agreement calls for the Astrocast nanosatellites to be launched onboard an Arianespace Vega or Vega C vehicle from Kourou, French Guyana, in the first quarter of 2022. This batch of nanosatellites will make up the Astrocast IoT Nanonsatellite Network's equatorial plane. The Astrocast constellation will consist of eight orbital planes, each consisting of eight operational and two spare satellites. The complete 80-unit Low Earth Orbit network will provide cost-effective two-way communications for the millions of IoT devices in remote areas of the world. Astrocast's constellation is expected to disrupt numerous enterprises, creating substantial efficiencies and cost advantages within key global sectors including maritime, oil and gas, mining, supply chain and logistics, automotive, utilities, and many others. Following an earlier InOrbit NOW mission planned in 2020 to deploy another batch of ten Astrocast satellites in sun-synchronous orbit, this mission will mark a total of twenty Astrocast satellites to be launched and deployed by D-Orbit. During the planned Astrocast mission, the ten nanosatellites will travel inside the DCube dispensers, designed by D-Orbit to reduce vibration and shock levels during launch.

"Reliable access to space is critical for Astrocast as we move quickly to deploy our constellation. We feel D-Orbit is a critical partner in our efforts and we are very excited to further our commitment to working together," said Kjell Karlsen, CFO, Astrocast.

"We are honored to contribute to the expansion of Astrocast's infrastructure in low inclination orbits" commented Renato Panesi, D-Orbit COO.

"This contract expands previous agreements with Astrocast and strengthens the cooperation between the two companies. We feel honored by Astrocast's renewed trust in our company and it's a privilege for D-Orbit to contribute to such an important mission".

CAPTION Ten Astrocast nanosatellites to be launched in low inclination orbit on Arianespace Vega or Vega C

Monday, October 28, 2019

Secrecy Tightens for X-37B

The recent landing of the latest X-37B robot spaceplane mission has been less visible to outsiders than any previous mission. The US Air Force has released photos of the spacecraft taken soon after its return. They show that the vehicle seems to be in fairly good condition after its longest flight ever, which extended for well over two years. The photos also show that the spacecraft has no visible features that would distinguish it from other spacecraft launched in this program, and in some ways make it hard to know exactly which one of the identical X-37B vehicles was used on this mission. We can probably judge that the mission was successful, but we are still not entirely sure of what the spacecraft was doing in orbit. Analysts have been speculating on the program for years, and have never been successful in penetrating the veil of secrecy surrounding the project. While the project itself is an amazing feat of technology, kudos must be extended to the team behind the scenes, who have managed to keep so much under wraps for so long. The existence of X-37B is no secret, and much has been officially released into the public domain. But there is an ongoing trend of tightening secrecy for the X-37B. In the past, we were given detailed images of the spacecraft being encapsulated in its payload fairing for launch, and then treated to nice video and images of its landing. That changed for recent missions, when pre-launch imagery of the spacecraft was not released. At the time, this analyst speculated that something had changed with the hardware, and this needed to be concealed.

The theory was that some form of instrument or sensor target had been added to the interface between the spacecraft and its launch vehicle, which would be used in some sort of interactions between the X-37B and the final launch stage shortly after launch.

The fact that the US Air Force had no problems with releasing full views of the spaceplane after landing suggested that any sensitive parts were on the rocket and not the X-37B itself.

This time, it's different. Admittedly, we still have photos of the spacecraft after landing, but they are far more restricted than ever before. The US Air Force Web site and an affiliated site contain just two images of the latest landing. No video of the landing has been released, either, which is also a departure from earlier trends.

Curiously, the images do not give any proper views of the rear of the spacecraft. By not showing certain things, the USAF is hinting that something unusual is there.

What could it be? This analyst suggests that some sort of calibration target is pasted to the rear of the X-37B. It was presumably photographed by sensors on the rocket soon after the spaceplane separated from it. This suggests that cameras or other sensors are being tested for close inspections of other satellites. T

hat being said, this analyst does not believe that any X-37B mission has ever made a close inspection of any foreign satellite, despite speculation elsewhere.

An alternative theory could be that there is a mounting bracket for a sub-satellite that was deployed from X-37B at some point in its mission. Such a satellite would be very small, and would presumably be in close proximity to the spaceplane. Thus, it could be hard to track or detect it.

What really lies at the rear of the spacecraft? We may never know until this program is declassified, and we could be waiting a long time for that.

Friday, October 25, 2019

NASA attaches first of 4 RS-25 engines to Artemis I rocket stage

Engineers and technicians at NASA's Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans have structurally mated the first of four RS-25 engines to the core stage for NASA's Space Launch System (SLS) rocket that will help power the first Artemis mission to the Moon. Integration of the RS-25 engines to the recently completed core stage structure is a collaborative, multistep process for NASA and its partners Boeing, the core stage lead contractor, and Aerojet Rocketdyne, the RS-25 engines lead contractor. To complete the installation, the technicians will now integrate the propulsion and electrical systems. The installation process will be repeated for each of the four RS-25 engines. The four RS-25 engines used for Artemis I were delivered to Michoud from Aerojet Rocketdyne's facility at NASA's Stennis Space Center near Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, in June. The engines, located at the bottom of the core stage in a square pattern, are fueled by liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen. During launch and flight, the four engines will fire nonstop for 8.5 minutes, emitting hot gases from each nozzle 13 times faster than the speed of sound. The completed core stage with all four engines attached will be the largest rocket stage NASA has built since the Saturn V stages for the Apollo Program.

NASA is working to land the first woman and next man on the Moon by 2024. SLS is part of NASA's backbone for deep space exploration, along with Orion and the Gateway in orbit around the Moon. SLS is the only rocket that can send Orion, astronauts and supplies to the Moon on a single mission.

Thursday, October 24, 2019

Breakthrough Listen to collaborate with scientists from NASA's TESS Team

Breakthrough Listen announced this week at the International Astronautical Congress in Washington, DC, a new collaboration with scientists working on NASA's Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite. The new collaboration will be led by TESS Deputy Science Director, MIT Professor Sara Seager; S. Pete Worden, Executive Director of the Breakthrough Initiatives; Dr. Andrew Siemion, leader of the Breakthrough Listen science team at the University of California, Berkeley's SETI Research Center; and will engage Listen partners and collaborators worldwide. The TESS and Listen collaboration will expand Breakthrough Listen's target list (adding over 1,000 "objects of interest" identified by TESS); refine Listen's analysis strategy (for example, utilizing new knowledge about planetary alignments to predict when transmissions might be more likely to occur); and provide more meaningful statistics in the event of non-detections. Observations will take place using Listen's primary facilities (the Green Bank and Parkes Telescopes, MeerKAT, and the Automated Planet Finder), as well as partner facilities including VERITAS, NenuFAR, FAST, the Murchison Widefield Array, LOFAR stations in Ireland and Sweden, Jodrell Bank Observatory and e-MERLIN, Keck Observatory, and the Sardinia Radio Telescope, along with the SETI Institute's Allen Telescope Array. "It's exciting that the world's most powerful SETI search, with our partner facilities across the globe, will be collaborating with the TESS team and our most capable planet-hunting machine," remarked Dr. Worden. "We're looking forward to working together as we try to answer one of the most profound questions about our place in the universe: Are we alone?"

The TESS mission measures "light curves" (how the brightness of stars changes over time) to look for telltale dips caused by "transits" - where a planet passes in front of the star as viewed from Earth. The cutting-edge instruments on TESS are sensitive enough to detect small, rocky planets similar to Earth. Such planets are prime targets for follow-up by NASA programs, such as the James Webb Space Telescope, that seek to measure planetary atmospheres. Careful measurements of atmospheric composition could result in the detection of "biosignatures" - indicators that biological processes may be taking place on worlds other than Earth.

As well as looking for biosignatures, astrobiologists search for "technosignatures" - indicators of technology that may have been developed by advanced civilizations. Also known as SETI (the search for extraterrestrial intelligence), technosignature searches use powerful telescopes to look for signals coming from space that appear to have arisen from transmitters, propulsion devices, or other engineering.

No unambiguous technosignatures have been seen to date, but the chances of detection are higher than they have ever been, in large part due to Breakthrough Listen - the most sensitive, comprehensive, and intensive search for advanced life on other worlds ever performed. Listen is using facilities across the globe, including cutting-edge optical telescopes, to search for powerful lasers, and the world's most capable radio telescopes to search for signals over a wide range of the radio spectrum.

In the past three decades over 4,000 exoplanets have been discovered - many by TESS's predecessor, the Kepler spacecraft. According to recent estimates, the average number of planets per star is greater than one. As a result, technosignature searches operate in a "target-rich" environment, observing stars whether or not confirmed planets are known to exist around them. Nevertheless, as the haul of confirmed exoplanets continues to grow, the additional information about these systems is very useful for optimizing SETI strategies.

Launched in April 2018, TESS has four wide-field cameras, each monitoring a region of sky 24 degrees across (about the width of the span of your hand when held at arm's length). Light curves for 20,000 stars are measured every 2 minutes, and in addition, the brightness of every pixel in the cameras is recorded every 30 minutes.

TESS will observe over 85% of the sky - around 400 times more than Kepler - and is predicted to find as many as 10,000 new planets. Most of the TESS targets are considerably closer to Earth than those viewed by Kepler, enabling technosignature searches to probe for fainter transmitters.

And because TESS only sees planets that pass in front of their host star as viewed from Earth, all the planetary systems it detects will be edge-on. A large fraction (roughly 70%) of radio leakage from Earth-based transmitters is emitted in the plane of Earth's orbit; if the same is true for any transmitters developed by extraterrestrial intelligence, observing the systems edge-on will offer the best chance of detection.

In addition to targeting of TESS planets with Listen facilities, the TESS light curves themselves will be searched for anomalies. A planet transit produces a well-understood variation in detected light from the star, but large-scale engineering projects (for example, "megastructures" constructed in orbit) could block the stellar light in more complex ways. The TESS analysis pipeline is in essence a wide-field anomaly detector, and stars that behave strangely are interesting not just as technosignature candidates, but as potential laboratories for studying interesting astrophysics.

"The discovery by the Kepler spacecraft of Boyajian's star, an object with wild, and apparently random, variations in its light curve, sparked great excitement and a range of possible explanations, of which megastructures were just one," said Dr. Siemion. "Follow-up observations have suggested that dust particles in orbit around the star are responsible for the dimming, but studies of anomalies like this are expanding our knowledge of astrophysics, as well as casting a wider net in the search for technosignatures."

"We are very enthusiastic about joining the Breakthrough Listen SETI search," said Prof. Sara Seager. "Out of all the exoplanet endeavors only SETI holds the promise for identifying signs of intelligent life."

Breakthrough Listen is a scientific program in search for evidence of technological life in the universe. It aims to survey one million nearby stars, the entire galactic plane and 100 nearby galaxies at a wide range of radio and optical bands. TESS BSRC

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

NASA wants international partners to go to Moon too

As it looks to return to the Moon, NASA is open to the idea of international participation, which could mean a non-American setting foot on Earth's natural satellite for the first time in history, global space chiefs said Monday. "I think there's lots of room on the Moon, and we need all our international partners to go with us to the Moon," NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine told reporters at the 70th International Astronautical Congress held in Washington. "If we can come to agreements on the contributions of all the nations and how they're going to be a part of the architecture, then certainly I would, I would see that there'd be no reason we can't have all of our international partners with us on the Moon," he added. The Americans are developing a spacecraft (Orion) and a mini space station (Gateway) that will remain in lunar orbit, which will in theory be used for a first crewed mission in 2024, Artemis 3. Only one element of the mission will be produced outside the US: the Orion service module that will supply it with electricity, propulsion, thermal control, air and water in space and is being delivered by the European Space Agency (ESA). Only once the Gateway is expanded will non-Americans be able to make the journey too. "We are in discussion also with NASA, so that we have European astronauts on the surface of the Moon -- this is of course the European intention," said Jan Worner, head of the ESA, at the same press conference. "2024 is for sure something which is purely American," he later told AFP. For Europeans, it could be "2027, 2028, something like that."

For its part, Japan also wants to take advantage of the new US program to write a new chapter in its own history.

"It's a very simple question to me because JAXA would like to send Japanese astronauts to the surface of the Moon," said Hiroshi Yamakawa, president of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency.

The building of the ISS in the late 1990s and 2000s appeared to usher in a new era of space cooperation between the US and Russia following the Cold War, but this time around, Washington is in no mood to work with geopolitical rivals.

Specifically, the US Congress has explicitly prohibited any cooperation with China, the world's biggest economy and an emerging space power.

During his speech inaugurating the weeklong conference, Vice President Mike Pence repeated seven times that the US wanted to work with "freedom-loving nations."

Monday, October 21, 2019

Solar Orbiter ready to depart Europe

ESA's Solar Orbiter mission has completed its test campaign in Europe and is now being packed ready for its journey to Cape Canaveral at the end of this month, ahead of launch in February 2020. The spacecraft was on display today for the final time in Europe, at the IABG test centre near Munich, Germany. It was built at Airbus Stevenage, UK, and has spent the last year at IABG undergoing essential testing such as checking deployment mechanisms, and that it can withstand the vibrations of launch, and the thermal extremes and vacuum of space. It has now been declared ready for shipment to the launch site and will travel an Antonov cargo plane on 31 October. Once launched it will follow an elliptical path around the Sun, at its closest bringing it within the orbit of Mercury, just 42 million kilometres from the Sun. As such, Sun-facing parts of the spacecraft have to withstand temperatures of more than 500 degrees C - due to solar radiation thirteen times more intense than for Earth-orbiting satellites - while other parts remain in shadow at -180 degrees C. The mission is essential to learn more about the Sun-Earth connection. We live inside a giant bubble of plasma generated by the Sun that surrounds the entire solar system, within which we are prey to space weather. Solar Orbiter will provide a deeper understanding as to how activity on the Sun is linked to these solar storms, which can disrupt electrical systems, satellite communications, GPS, and create higher doses of radiation for polar flights and astronauts.

"Solar Orbiter is set for answering some of the biggest scientific questions about our star, and its data will help us to better protect our planet from the global challenges of space weather," says Gunther Hasinger, ESA Director of Science.

"Thanks to the hard work of our teams building and testing this inspiring space mission, we've reached an important milestone today in Europe, and the spacecraft will now be readied for its final phase of pre-launch preparations at Cape Canaveral."

Solar Orbiter will launch on a NASA-provided Atlas V 411. The launch is currently scheduled in the early hours of 6 February (UTC). Once in space, and over the course of several years, it will use the gravity of Venus and Earth to raise its orbit above the poles of the Sun, providing new perspectives on our star, including the first images of the Sun's polar regions.

Its complementary suite of instruments means it will be able to study the plasma environment locally around the spacecraft, and collect data from the Sun from afar, connecting the dots between the Sun's activity, and the space environment in the inner solar system.

Solar Orbiter is an ESA mission with strong NASA participation. The prime contractor is Airbus Defence and Space in Stevenage, UK. It follows in the legacy of missions such as Ulysses (1990-2009) and SOHO (1995-present) and will also provide complementary datasets to NASA's Parker Solar Probe that will allow more science to be distilled from the two missions than either could achieve on their own.

Thursday, October 17, 2019

MRO HiRISE camera views InSight and Curiosity on Mars

The HiRISE camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter recently sent home eye-catching views of the agency's InSight lander and its Curiosity rover. HiRISE has been monitoring InSight's landing site in the Elysium Planitia region of the Red Planet for changes to the surface, such as dust-devil tracks. Taken on Sept. 23, 2019, at an altitude of 169 miles (272 kilometers) above the surface, the new image is NASA's best view yet of InSight from space. It clearly shows the two circular solar panels on either side of the lander body, spanning 20 feet (6 meters) from end to end. The bright spot on the lower side of the spacecraft is the dome-shaped protective cover over InSight's seismometer. The dark halo surrounding the spacecraft resulted from retrorocket thrusters scouring the surface during landing, while dust devils created the dark streaks that run diagonally across the surface. Several factors make this image crisper than a set of images released after InSight's November 2018 landing. For one thing, there's less dust in the air this time. Shadows are offset from the lander because this is an oblique view looking west. The lighting was also optimal for avoiding the bright reflections from the lander or its solar panels that have obscured surrounding pixels in other images. However, bright reflections are unavoidable with the seismometer cover just south of the lander because of its dome shape.

Driven by Curiosity

HiRISE has also been keeping tabs on NASA's Curiosity, which is roughly 373 miles (600 kilometers) from InSight, exploring a region called "the clay-bearing unit."

A GIF released this week shows Curiosity as a gray speck as it traveled 1,106 feet (337 meters) from a location within the clay-bearing unit called "Woodland Bay" (top center) to "Sandside Harbour" (bottom center, near the dark sand patch) between May 31 and July 20, 2019.

Look carefully and you can even see the rover's tracks arcing to the right side of the second image.

NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, manages the InSight, MRO and Curiosity missions for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. JPL is a division of Caltech. The University of Arizona in Tucson operates HiRISE, which was built by Ball Aerospace and Technologies Corp. in Boulder, Colorado. MRO was built by Lockheed Martin Space.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Soil on moon and Mars likely to support crops

Researchers at Wageningen University and Research in the Netherlands have produced crops in Mars and Moon soil simulant developed by NASA. The research supports the idea that it would not only be possible to grow food on Mars and the Moon to feed future settlers, but also to obtain viable seed from crops grown there. Wieger Wamelink and his colleagues at Wageningen University and Research, cultivated ten different crops: garden cress, rocket, tomato, radish, rye, quinoa, spinach, chives, peas and leek. The researchers simulated the properties of Lunar and Martian regolith and "normal" soil (potting soil from Earth) as a control. Nine of the ten crops sown grew well and edible parts were harvested from them. Spinach was the exception. Total biomass production per tray was the highest for the Earth control and Mars soil simulant that differed significantly from Moon soil simulant. The seeds produced by three species (radish, rye and garden cress) were tested successfully for germination. The article, "Crop growth and viability of seeds on Mars and Moon soil simulants", by Wieger Wamelink and colleagues has been published in De Gruyter's open access journal, Open Agriculture. "We were thrilled when we saw the first tomatoes ever grown on Mars soil simulant turning red. It meant that the next step towards a sustainable closed agricultural ecosystem had been taken," said Wieger Wamelink.

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Aerojet Rocketdyne teams with NASA to develop novel rocket engine technology

Aerojet Rocketdyne has entered into a Space Act Agreement with NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center to design and manufacture a lightweight rocket engine thrust chamber assembly using innovative additive manufacturing processes and materials. The goal of the project is to reduce manufacturing costs and make a thrust chamber that is easily scalable to support a variety of missions, including America's return to the Moon and subsequent missions to explore Mars. Aerojet Rocketdyne will use a unique combination of 3D printing technologies - including solid state deposition and laser deposition - to enable rapid fabrication of complex components. The vertical integration of these robotic additive manufacturing techniques is expected to yield a scalable design that could be applied to propulsion systems ranging from small systems that would support a lunar lander, all the way up to large boosters that enable launch vehicles to escape Earth's gravity. "As we look to the future of space exploration, efficiency and scalability will be key, which is why we are excited to work with NASA on this innovative thrust chamber for rocket engines," said Aerojet Rocketdyne CEO and President Eileen Drake. "The technology we develop will leverage the most advanced additive manufacturing techniques and materials to help provide efficient and safe transportation to and through space."

The effort is being facilitated by NASA's Space Technology Mission Directorate through its Announcement of Collaborative Opportunity (ACO) initiative, which aims to reduce the development cost of technologies and accelerate the infusion of emerging commercial capabilities into space missions.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

NASA and SpaceX hope for manned mission to ISS in early 2020

SpaceX could launch US astronauts to the International Space Station as early as next year if tests on the company's long-delayed Crew Dragon capsule prove conclusive, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said Thursday. Bridenstine made the announcement as he toured the California headquarters of billionaire Elon Musk's SpaceX, a major contractor for NASA. The visit came as Bridenstine and Musk have been engaged in a public spat over the much-delayed building of the Crew Dragon spacecraft. The capsule would provide the transportation for astronauts to the space station for the first time since America's space shuttle program ended in 2011. Musk, who appeared at a news conference alongside Bridenstine and the two astronauts who are set to fly on board the spacecraft, said he hoped to have the capsule delivered to NASA by the end of the year. He stressed, however, that safety was paramount and the launch would be delayed without hesitation if any problems arise. "If everything goes according to plan, it would be in the first quarter of next year," Bridenstine said of the launch. "But remember -- and this is the important thing that we have to get right on messaging -- there are still things that we can learn or could learn that could be challenging that we have to resolve. "I'm not saying that's going to happen, I don't know. That's why we test."

Some of the technical challenges SpaceX is working on include concerns about the parachutes and the propulsion system.

"It's a pretty arduous engineering job to get the parachutes right," Musk said.

"Parachutes, they look easy but they are definitely not easy," he added. "We want to get at least something on the order of 10 successful tests in a row before launching astronauts."

Since retiring its space shuttle program, NASA has had to rely on Russia to ferry astronauts to and from the space station at a cost of $85 million a seat. It is now counting on SpaceX and Boeing to carry out that task.

SpaceX was founded in 2002 by Musk to help reduce space transportation costs -- and with an ultimate goal of helping colonize Mars.

The first manned flight to the space station was due to take place last year but SpaceX suffered a major setback in April when its Crew Dragon spacecraft exploded during testing, prompting delays and renewed tests.

"You know, honestly, if there's a test program and nothing happens in that test program, I would say that test program is insufficiently rigorous," Musk said Thursday.

"Space is hard," he added.

Saturday, October 12, 2019

Luca powers up for a spacewalk

European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut Luca Parmitano is preparing to step out into space for his first spacewalk of the Beyond mission. Scheduled for 25 October, he will work with NASA astronaut Jessica Meir to replace nickel hydrogen batteries with newer lithium ion batteries and install battery adapter plates on the Space Station's Port-6 truss structure. This is a process fellow ESA astronaut Thomas Pesquet knows well, having replaced batteries on another power channel during his Proxima mission. We asked him to tell us more about the task and how the crew will prepare. Known to the crew as an EVA (Extravehicular Activity), each spacewalk is planned up to a year in advance. On Station, preparation begins around two weeks ahead, with a set of procedures called the "Road to EVA". "Preparing for a spacewalk will make up 2-3 hours of your schedule every day during this time," Thomas explains. "The crew often carry out prep in their personal time as well."

The big day
Live coverage of Luca and Jessica's spacewalk starts on NASA TV at 10:30 GMT (12:30 CEST), but the crew will begin their preparation around 6:00. And there is to be no showering, shaving, or applying deodorant for at least a day in advance, as any remnants of these products could mix with the pure oxygen inside the suit and pose a fire risk

Astronauts wear a liquid cooling garment underneath their spacesuit. This is connected to the water system that keeps them cool, or warm, by circulating water around their body. They also don a medical monitor and put a dosimeter in their pocket to measure radiation before entering the hatch.

Thomas describes the process inside the airlock as "like scuba diving in reverse", as astronauts breathe in a controlled way to rid their blood of nitrogen and adjust to lower pressure.

A third crew member, known as the Intravehicular (IV) crew member, is also isolated in the airlock, before it goes to vacuum. This person helps the astronauts with their oxygen masks and into their spacesuits, while making sure everything is checked, tethered and ready for a safe and successful sortie.

It is a role Luca will play in the two spacewalks before his, on 15 and 21 October.

Out in space

Before exiting the airlock, Thomas says, extreme focus is the overriding feeling.

"Everybody's watching, so many people have been involved in the preparation, and the risks are so much higher when you're outside the Space Station," he explains. "The only thing you can't really prepare for are the day/night cycles.

"During the night, you only have your helmet light, so you can't really see anything except what you're working on. And because you're working in all body orientations, it's easy to get disoriented. But you know you can always follow your tether back towards the hatch."

After exiting the airlock, Thomas says one astronaut will prepare the worksite while the other breaks torque on the pre-positioned adapter plates. Each astronaut will then work to install the adapter plates, needed to replace two older batteries with one new one.

The spacewalk on 25 October is the one of five scheduled for October. Even more are expected in November as Luca ventures out again with the complex task of repairing and enhancing dark matter hunter AMS-02 - a structure never designed to be maintained in orbit.

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Jet taking off from Florida will launch NASA weather satellite

After a two-year delay, NASA is ready to use a jet aircraft to launch a new space weather satellite from Florida on Thursday night, weather permitting. The Ionospheric Connection Explorer or ICON satellite will help NASA understand and predict how solar flares interact with the earth's atmosphere and magnetic field, including our planet's deadly Van Allen radiation belts. The data is expected to help satellites avoid radiation.The rocket will be carried high over the Atlantic from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on a Northrop Grumman L-1011 Stargazer aircraft. When it's about 50 to 100 miles east of Daytona Beach, it will drop a 52,000-pound Pegasus XL rocket and payload. The rocket will ignite and carry the satellite into orbit. Previous launches in 2017 and 2018 were delayed due to faulty sensors and vibrations detected from the rocket as it was carried by the jet, Northrop Grumman officials said. Those issues were corrected after lengthy, difficult testing during which engineers had to mimic the conditions of the rocket's high-altitude journey. Despite the delays, the mission is coming in at its original budget of $252 million, NASA officials said. "This satellite will help us get exactly the right physics, and you will now have a much more accurate prediction about what that solar flare is going to do," said Nicola Fox, heliophysics division director for NASA. The flight is set to take off about 8:32 p.m. Thursday. The rocket should launch after about one hour, at roughly 40,000 feet. NASA will broadcast the event starting at 9:15 p.m. The rocket itself will only fly for about 10 minutes before releasing its payload.

Weather delayed the launch Wednesday night. There's a better chance for good launch conditions Thursday night - 70 percent, according to the U.S. Air Force.

The Pegasus has launched 90 satellites on 43 previous missions, according to Northrop.

Dropping the rocket is "the most exciting part of the flight," said Phil Joyce, vice president of space launch programs at the company. A copilot on board actually pushes a switch to drop the Pegasus, if weather and all other conditions are good.

"It's dropping 52,000 pounds, but the plane still has the same lift," he said. "So the plane climbs fairly rapidly about 1,200 to 1,500 feet as the rocket drops for about 5 seconds before firing. That also gives us safety margin of distance."

NASA believes the ionosphere, where the Sun ionizes the air to create charged particles, is significantly influenced by storms in Earth's lower atmosphere. ICON will also help NASA better understand how atmospheric winds control ionospheric variability.

Northrop Grumman began air-launching Pegasus rockets in 1990, when one launched from beneath a NASA B-52 aircraft.

Pegasus launches have been conducted from six separate sites in the United States, Europe and the Marshall Islands.

A crew of seven will be on the ICON mission plane when it takes off. In case of storms or other delays, there is a 90-minute launch window.

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Pressure runs high at edge of solar system

Out at the boundary of our solar system, pressure runs high. This pressure, the force plasma, magnetic fields and particles like ions, cosmic rays and electrons exert on one another when they flow and collide, was recently measured by scientists in totality for the first time - and it was found to be greater than expected. Using observations of galactic cosmic rays - a type of highly energetic particle - from NASA's Voyager spacecraft scientists calculated the total pressure from particles in the outer region of the solar system, known as the heliosheath. At nearly 9 billion miles away, this region is hard to study. But the unique positioning of the Voyager spacecraft and the opportune timing of a solar event made measurements of the heliosheath possible. And the results are helping scientists understand how the Sun interacts with its surroundings. "In adding up the pieces known from previous studies, we found our new value is still larger than what's been measured so far," said Jamie Rankin, lead author on the new study and astronomer at Princeton University in New Jersey. "It says that there are some other parts to the pressure that aren't being considered right now that could contribute." On Earth we have air pressure, created by air molecules drawn down by gravity. In space there's also a pressure created by particles like ions and electrons. These particles, heated and accelerated by the Sun create a giant balloon known as the heliosphere extending millions of miles out past Pluto. The edge of this region, where the Sun's influence is overcome by the pressures of particles from other stars and interstellar space, is where the Sun's magnetic influence ends. (Its gravitational influence extends much farther, so the solar system itself extends farther, as well.)

In order to measure the pressure in the heliosheath, the scientists used the Voyager spacecraft, which have been travelling steadily out of the solar system since 1977. At the time of the observations, Voyager 1 was already outside of the heliosphere in interstellar space, while Voyager 2 still remained in the heliosheath.

"There was really unique timing for this event because we saw it right after Voyager 1 crossed into the local interstellar space," Rankin said. "And while this is the first event that Voyager saw, there are more in the data that we can continue to look at to see how things in the heliosheath and interstellar space are changing over time."

The scientists used an event known as a global merged interaction region, which is caused by activity on the Sun. The Sun periodically flares up and releases enormous bursts of particles, like in coronal mass ejections. As a series of these events travel out into space, they can merge into a giant front, creating a wave of plasma pushed by magnetic fields.

When one such wave reached the heliosheath in 2012, it was spotted by Voyager 2. The wave caused the number of galactic cosmic rays to temporarily decrease. Four months later, the scientists saw a similar decrease in observations from Voyager 1, just across the solar system's boundary in interstellar space.

Knowing the distance between the spacecraft allowed them to calculate the pressure in the heliosheath as well as the speed of sound. In the heliosheath sound travels at around 300 kilometers per second - a thousand times faster than it moves through air.

The scientists noted that the change in galactic cosmic rays wasn't exactly identical at both spacecraft. At Voyager 2 inside the heliosheath, the number of cosmic rays decreased in all directions around the spacecraft. But at Voyager 1, outside the solar system, only the galactic cosmic rays that were traveling perpendicular to the magnetic field in the region decreased. This asymmetry suggests that something happens as the wave transmits across the solar system's boundary.

"Trying to understand why the change in the cosmic rays is different inside and outside of the heliosheath remains an open question," Rankin said.

Studying the pressure and sound speeds in this region at the boundary of the solar system can help scientists understand how the Sun influences interstellar space. This not only informs us about our own solar system, but also about the dynamics around other stars and planetary systems.

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

NASA opens call for Artemis lunar landers

NASA is seeking proposals for human lunar landing systems designed and developed by American companies for the Artemis program, which includes sending the first woman and next man to the surface of the Moon by 2024. The final call to industry comes after NASA issued two drafts on July 19 and Aug. 30, encouraging companies to send comments to help shape a key component of the agency's human exploration Artemis partnerships. NASA is expected to make multiple awards to industry to develop and demonstrate a human landing system. The first company to complete its lander will carry astronauts to the surface in 2024, and the second company will land in 2025. Proposals to build a landing system are due Nov. 1-an ambitious timeline consistent with the sequence of events leading to this point-however, companies have been preparing for, reviewing, and commenting on several drafts of NASA's broad agency announcement since mid-July and should be ready for this tight timeline. "In order to best accelerate our return to the Moon and prepare for Mars, we collaborated with industry on ideas to streamline the procurement process," said Marshall Smith, director of the Human Lunar Exploration Program at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "The private sector was eager to provide us feedback throughout this process, and we received more than 1,150 comments on the draft solicitations issued over the summer." Typical spaceflight hardware can take six to eight years to develop. With less than five years to land astronauts on the Moon, every word and requirement counts.

After reviewing the comments, NASA removed requirements that industry perceived as potential barriers to speed while preserving all the agency's human safety measures. For example, industry stated that delivery of a high number of formal technical reports would require a company to spend considerable resources and incur undue schedule risk.

Taking this into consideration, NASA has designed a less formal insight model that will be used for accessing critical contractor data while minimizing administrative overhead. As a result, NASA reduced the number of required contract deliverables from 116 to 37.

"Reports still are valuable and necessary, but to compromise and ease the bulk of the reporting burden on industry, we are asking for access to the companies' systems to monitor progress throughout development," said Nantel Suzuki, the Human Landing System program executive at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

"To maximize our chances of successfully returning to the Moon by 2024, we also are making NASA's engineering workforce available to contractors and asking proposers to submit a collaboration plan."

When called to accelerate its return to the Moon, NASA said it would meet this ambitious goal by "any means necessary."

The agency's preferred approach to a lunar landing is for the crew in the Orion spacecraft and the uncrewed human landing system to launch separately and meet in lunar orbit at the Gateway, which is critical to long-term exploration of the Moon. NASA wants to explore all options to achieve the 2024 mission and remains open to alternative, innovative approaches.

Another shift centered around how to best achieve sustainability on the Moon by 2028. In addition to greater performance, such as global lunar surface access and higher payload mass capacity, NASA originally required the Human Landing System to be refuelable as a means to ensure a more sustainable exploration architecture.

Multiple companies had concerns about this requirement, and NASA agreed to remove it so that industry has greater flexibility to address the more fundamental attribute of sustainability, which is long-term affordability.

"They were absolutely right," said Lisa Watson-Morgan, the Human Landing System program manager at NASA's Marshall Spaceflight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. "We are operating on a timeline that requires us to be flexible to encourage innovation and alternate approaches. We still welcome the option to refuel the landing system, but we removed it as a requirement."

NASA's Artemis program includes sending a suite of new science instruments and technology demonstrations to study the Moon, landing the first woman and next man on the lunar surface by 2024, and establishing a sustained presence by 2028. The agency will leverage its Artemis experience and technologies to prepare for the next giant leap - sending astronauts to Mars.

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

SLS Rocket Pathfinders Prepare Teams for One-of-a-Kind Hardware Prior to Moon Mission

NASA's Pegasus barge arrived Sept. 27 at the agency's Kennedy Space Center in Florida with the core stage pathfinder for NASA's Space Launch System (SLS) rocket. The pathfinder will be used for lift and transport practice techniques inside Kennedy's Vehicle Assembly Building to prepare for the first lunar mission of SLS and NASA's Orion spacecraft, Artemis I. The core stage pathfinder is one of three pathfinder structures used by NASA to train lift crews on best practices for moving and handling the SLS rocket flight hardware. In addition to the core stage pathfinder, there is an RS-25 engine pathfinder and a solid rocket booster pathfinder. Designed as full-scale mockups of the flight hardware, the three SLS pathfinders each reflect the shape and size of the individual components of the rocket. The number of pathfinders for the rocket allow multiple teams to use the pathfinders for different operations and procedures at several processing locations. After teams at Kennedy practice with the core stage pathfinder in the VAB, NASA's Exploration Ground Systems will begin stacking operations with the booster pathfinder structures to simulate an aft booster assembly and bottom center segment stacking operation. All this practice prepares teams for the same upcoming tasks with the actual flight hardware. Engineers previously used the core stage pathfinder in August at NASA's Stennis Space Center near Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, where crews practiced similar lift and handling procedures into the B-2 Test Stand ahead of the Green Run test series for the core stage.

"After the pathfinder lift operations were complete, the unit was installed into the B-2 Test Stand at Stennis," said Barry Robinson, B-2 Test Stand core stage test project manager at Stennis. "Among other things, the exercise helped us identify minor facility modifications early enough to provide the time needed to make the corrections prior to the arrival of the core stage flight hardware."

Equipped with the largest rocket stage NASA has ever produced and the largest twin boosters ever built for flight, the SLS rocket for the Artemis missions will be the most powerful rocket in the world, enabling astronauts in Orion to travel to the Moon's south pole. The two massive propellant tanks in the rocket's 212-foot-tall core stage power the four RS-25 engines at the bottom of the rocket. On either side of the core stage are two, five-segment solid rocket boosters. Together, the engines and the boosters will produce a combined thrust of 8.8 million pounds during launch and flight. The rocket for Artemis I will tower at 322 feet.

"Practicing operations with pathfinders offers teams hands-on experience for managing and handling the immense structures before this one-of-a-kind flight hardware arrives," Robinson said.

Because the pathfinders replicate the flight hardware, the various pathfinders validate ground support equipment, and flight hardware access techniques as well as train handlers to transport the equipment on a variety of terrains with different vehicles, like the Pegasus barge and Kennedy's mobile launcher, and demonstrate how the equipment can be integrated within facilities.

"Experience is the best teacher," said Jim Bolton, EGS core stage operations manager. "Pathfinders allow crews to practice lifting, accessing and transporting techniques that we prefer not to do for the first time with the flight hardware. Practicing with a pathfinder reduces risk and builds confidence."

As crews at Kennedy use the SLS booster and core stage pathfinders for the same processes the actual flight hardware will undergo when processed at Kennedy for Artemis I, completed flight hardware for SLS and Orion will also be delivered.

"NASA's first Artemis mission flight hardware has progressed into final assembly and integration, moving well beyond the early design and manufacturing stages of development," said Mark Prill, SLS core stage pathfinder lead. "Flight hardware for both the SLS rocket and the Orion spacecraft will continue to be delivered to Kennedy as NASA prepares for the launch of Artemis I."

NASA is working to land the first woman and the next man on the Moon by 2024. SLS, along with Orion and the Gateway in orbit around the Moon, are NASA's backbone for deep space exploration. SLS is the only rocket that can send Orion, astronauts and supplies to the Moon on a single mission.