Tuesday, January 16, 2018

The SpaceX vs. Boeing Race Is Too Close to Call

There’s an American flag stuck to a hatch on the International Space Station. The first space shuttle mission, STS-1, flew the flag in 1981. The final shuttle flight, in 2011, left the flag behind in orbit, a prize to be claimed by the next crew to fly into space from U.S. soil.

Boeing and SpaceX are locked in a duel to be the first to reach orbit with people on board their capsules. With yesterday’s news that SpaceX’s launch dates have slipped, that race is now too close to call.

Before these companies can carry astronauts to space, NASA wants them to launch uncrewed test flights of the companies’ capsules, dress rehearsals for later manned launches. SpaceX will loft its Dragon 2 capsule on a Falcon 9 rocket, while Boeing’s Starliner capsule will launch on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket. Both of these demonstrations are now scheduled for August 2018.

However, we're now hearing that SpaceX’s manned launch has been delayed until December, which pushes Elon Musk's company back until after Boeing’s planned manned flight in November. This is the first time SpaceX’s timetable to capture the flag is later than Boeing’s.

Delays are no stranger to this effort. The commercial crew program - as NASA calls its plan to have private enterprise take over the mission of lofting astronauts to the ISS - had an original date of 2015. Money problems pushed back the timetable, but the program is now in the home stretch, where test results and reviews have more sway than money.

Boeing’s launch dates have not slipped much since NASA announced them in 2017. This probably reflects the fact that Boeing has a more experienced team of government contractors, who over the years have learned how to manage customers like NASA and provide timelines that are achievable. SpaceX and NASA have a good working relationship in terms of cargo launches, but flying humans demands more rigorous oversight.

The truth behind these dates is that either company would be happy to launch in 2018. Critical test results could lead to more tests or even design changes if things don't go well. Even so, SpaceX’s aggressive timeline had put them in a comfortable lead. Now we're not so sure.

There’s more at stake than bragging rights. Whoever delivers astronauts to the ISS first will not only make history and earn the right to keep the American flag on the space station, but also claims an advantage in future sales of manned space launches. And future passengers include customers beyond NASA.


Monday, January 15, 2018

SpaceX Will Test the Engines of the World's Most Powerful Rocket Today

The SpaceX Falcon Heavy is one step closer to liftoff.

On Monday afternoon, the company will test fire the engines on its newest rocket at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, according to local news reports. The test was originally scheduled for last Thursday, but was delayed first to Friday and then to Monday for unspecified reasons. Visible vapors around the rocket and launch pad last week indicated the rocket had been fueled up.

SpaceX did not immediately return Fortune‘s request for comment on Monday’s planned test and last week’s delays.

According to SpaceX, the Falcon Heavy is the most powerful rocket in operation. It has more than 5 million pounds of thrust, equivalent to 18 747 aircraft. With 27 engines and three cores to get the rocket off the ground, it is capable of carrying more than 140,000 pounds of cargo to low-Earth orbit. The cores are designed to be re-used, making the rocket much more cost effective.

This rocket has been in the works for a while, with its first test flight originally scheduled for 2013. SpaceX and Tesla CEO Elon Musk said the company’s initial hopes for the technology were too high. It’s been trying to manage expectations for its launch since July, when he said he only hoped the test launch wouldn’t cause launch pad damage.

Still, Mosk drew attention to the launch with the announcement that the cargo of the initial launch would be his own Tesla Roadster, playing David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” on repeat as it heads towards Mars.

Source: http://fortune.com/2018/01/15/spacex-falcon-heavy-engine-test/

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Boeing, SpaceX progressing towards 1st crewed missions in 2018: NASA

U.S. space agency NASA said Thursday its industry partners, Boeing and SpaceX, are targeting the return of human spaceflight from Florida's Space Coast in 2018.

"Both companies are scheduled to begin flight tests to prove the space systems meet NASA's requirements for certification in the coming year," NASA said in a statement.

"Boeing's Starliner will launch on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Space Launch Complex 41 and SpaceX's Crew Dragon will launch on the company's Falcon 9 rocket from Launch Complex 39A."

Boeing is expected to perform an uncrewed flight test in August, during which the unmanned Starliner will dock to the International Space Station for about two weeks.

Then, the company will fly the Starliner spacecraft for its first commercial spaceflight to the International Space Station in November with two crew members on board.

Meanwhile, SpaceX is targeting the second quarter of 2018 for its first uncrewed demonstration mission with Crew Dragon to and from the International Space Station.

It will be followed by a crewed mission in the third quarter of 2018 that will see two NASA astronauts flying to and from the International Space Station in SpaceX' s Crew Dragon spacecraft.

The two crewed missions by Boeing and SpaceX "represent a major milestone in the return of human spaceflight from the United States," NASA said.

If everything goes well, the companies are each slated to fly six crew missions to the International Space Station beginning in 2019 and continuing through 2024, it added.

Source: http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2018-01/05/c_136872765.htm

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

New Approach For Detecting Planets In Alpha Centauri System

Yale astronomers have taken a fresh look at the nearby Alpha Centauri star system and found new ways to narrow the search for habitable planets there.

According to a study led by Professor Debra Fischer and graduate student Lily Zhao, there may be small, Earth-like planets in Alpha Centauri that have been overlooked. Meanwhile, the study ruled out the existence of a number of larger planets in the system that had popped up in previous models.

“The universe has told us the most common types of planets are small planets, and our study shows these are exactly the ones that are most likely to be orbiting Alpha Centauri A and B,” said Fischer, a leading expert on exoplanets who has devoted decades of research to the search for an Earth analog.

The new study appears in the Astronomical Journal. Co-authors are John Brewer and Matt Giguere of Yale and Bárbara Rojas-Ayala of Universidad Andrés Bello in Chile.

The Alpha Centauri system is located 1.3 parsecs (24.9 trillion miles) from Earth, making it our closest neighboring system. It has three stars: Centauri A, Centauri B, and Proxima Centauri. Last year, the discovery of an Earth-like planet orbiting Proxima Centauri set off a new wave of scientific and public interest in the system.

“Because Alpha Centauri is so close, it is our first stop outside our solar system,” Fischer said. “There’s almost certain to be small, rocky planets around Alpha Centauri A and B.”

The findings are based on data coming in from a new wave of more advanced spectrographic instruments at observatories located in Chile: CHIRON, a spectrograph built by Fischer’s team; HARPS, built by a team from Geneva; and UVES, part of the Very Large Telescope Array. “The precision of our instruments hasn’t been good enough, until now,” Fischer said.

The researchers set up a grid system for the Alpha Centauri system and asked, based on the spectrographic analysis, “If there was a small, rocky planet in the habitable zone, would we have been able to detect it?” Often, the answer came back: “No.”

Zhao, the study’s first author, determined that for Alpha Centauri A, there might still be orbiting planets that are smaller than 50 Earth masses. For Alpha Centauri B there might be orbiting planets than are smaller than 8 Earth masses; for Proxima Centauri, there might be orbiting planets that are less than one-half of Earth’s mass.

In addition, the study eliminated the possibility of a number of larger planets. Zhao said this takes away the possibility of Jupiter-sized planets causing asteroids that might hit or change the orbits of smaller, Earth-like planets.

“This is a very green study in that it recycles existing data to draw new conclusions,” said Zhao. “By using the data in a different way, we are able to rule out large planets that could endanger small, habitable worlds and narrow down the search area for future investigations.” This new information will help astronomers prioritize their efforts to detect additional planets in the system, the researchers said.

Likewise, the continuing effort by Fischer and others to improve spectrographic technology will help identify and understand the composition of exoplanets.

Source: http://www.eurasiareview.com/19122017-new-approach-for-detecting-planets-in-alpha-centauri-system/

NASA is planning an interstellar mission for 2069, may head to nearby Alpha Centauri

Mankind hasn’t yet explored some of the most interesting objects in our own solar system — heck, we still don’t even know all that much about Earth itself — but that isn’t stopping NASA from setting its sights at a destination so distant that it would take decades for a spacecraft to even get there. A tentative mission is currently being outlined that would see NASA send a spacecraft on an interstellar mission to explore the Alpha Centauri system.

The proposed journey, which was revealed by scientists with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the 2017 Geophysical Union Conference and reported by New Scientist, was born out of a budget mandate to make progress on interstellar travel. Now, NASA is working on technology that, if all goes as planned, could allow a spacecraft to reach ten percent of light speed, and the goal is to have it ready by 2069 with Alpha Centauri in its sights

Alpha Centauri is a system made up of three stars, with the two primary stars being Alpha Centauri A and Alpha Centauri B, and the third — thought to possibly be merely passing through the system — is Proxima Centauri. The system is around 4.3 light years from Earth, which essentially makes it a next-door neighbor. If NASA succeeds at achieving ten percent of light speed with a spacecraft, it would allow them to reach the system with a probe in as little as 44 years.

At the moment, astronomers know that the star system does indeed have at least one planet in orbit. Other planets have been theorized, but data to prove their existence has been hard to come by. Our best bet at learning exactly what worlds are orbiting the nearby system may be to simply visit it ourselves with an observational spacecraft.

The biggest hurdle in this proposed mission for NASA to overcome is the development of the propulsion technology that would allow a probe to travel the massive distance in a relatively short period of time. A number of possible techniques have been proposed, including laser-propelled sails which could be pushed to incredible speeds, but putting such theoretical technology into practice is easier said than done.

If NASA, or any other space agency or private company for that matter, manages to achieve interstellar travel, Alpha Centauri will almost certainly be their first target. We just don’t know what we’re going to find when we get there.

Source: https://finance.yahoo.com/news/nasa-planning-interstellar-mission-2069-may-head-nearby-205115227.html

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

SpaceX is sending barley to space for Budweiser research

SpaceX is sending barley seeds on a round trip mission to space in the name of better beer -- and some brand cool for Anheuser.
It's part of a research project backed by Budweiser, which says it wants to develop the first beer that space foragers can drink on Mars.

The launch was slated for liftoff from Cape Canaveral's Air Force station on Tuesday morning. But SpaceX said late Monday that it's been delayed till Wednesday afternoon to allow time for additional checks.

It's part of SpaceX's ongoing partnership with NASA to complete unmanned trips to the International Space Station. Each trip sends supplies for the crew and scientific experiments.

Six people are currently on board the space station -- three NASA astronauts, two Russian cosmonauts and one Italian astronaut.

Budweiser's plan to brew space beer may sound like a gimmick. Indeed, the funding for the project is coming out of Budweiser's marketing budget, according to Ricardo Marques, the company's vice president of marketing. He declined to say how much the experiment cost.

He says space travel "is becoming a trending hot topic," and he didn't shy away from conceding that's part of what draws marketers in. But, he added, "there's a lot of scientific horsepower behind this experiment."

Mike Roberts is the deputy chief scientist at CASIS, which manages the space station's U.S. research lab. His team helps vet which cargo is worthy of making the risky and expensive trek to space.

He told CNNMoney in an interview last week that the barley experiment will add to a series of projects the space station has hosted -- all aimed at learning more about crops and how to better grow them back here on Earth.

"With global warming and other things coming our way, there's drastic changes for our access to nutrients," he said.

The barley seeds slated to fly on Wednesday will stay on the space station for about one month before they are sent home to be analyzed. The goal is to study how they react to the micro-gravity environment in space.

That will give scientists a better understanding of barley's plant biology -- lending some potentially valuable information about growing healthy crops on Earth, Roberts said. It'll mark the first time barley seeds have been the focus of a space station experiment.

Budweiser says this will be the first of many excursions it plans to back. And, eventually, the newly gleaned information could inform how the company will make brewskis for Mars.

The company pledged to make "the first beer on Mars" earlier this year at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas.

Marques, the marketing executive, says the company wants to be known for "being bold, pushing the boundaries."

"We're looking to simply learn more, explore our agenda. It's great that we can connect with the passion of our drinker," he said before adding, "And we've been watching Star Trek for years."

Source: http://money.cnn.com/2017/12/11/technology/future/spacex-budweiser/index.html

Trump puts Moon back on NASA’s road map to Mars

President Trump on Monday ordered NASA to send astronauts back to the moon and then eventually to Mars, part of the administration’s focus on manned space exploration.

“This is a giant step toward that inspiring future,” Mr. Trump said. “We are the leader and we are going to stay the leader.”

The president signed the Space Policy Directive-1 on the 45th anniversary of the last crew mission to land on the moon, which was Apollo 17 lunar lander that touched down on the moon Dec. 11, 1972.

Vice President Mike Pence has spearheaded the administration’s space policy and was on hand for the signing of the directive.

Mr. Trump credited the vice president with helping restore “American leadership” in space.

The Obama administration had given up on moon landings and instead planned to use asteroids as steppingstones to reach Mars.

Source: https://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2017/dec/11/trump-puts-moon-back-nasas-road-map-mars/