Sunday, January 21, 2018

NASA is ready to ditch Earth and colonize Mars

NASA has its sights set on Mars. The space agency is making plans for humans to colonize the red planet, including a way to grow crops. The first manned mission to Mars is scheduled for 2030.


Saturday, January 20, 2018

Prepare for liftoff! Here’s 7 crazy facts about the SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket

Like many folks, we were super excited about this week’s Falcon Heavy rocket static-fire engine test. Unfortunately, the demonstration of the SpaceX rocket which Elon Musk hopes will one day wing its way to Mars was cancelled at the eleventh hour due to logistical and safety concerns.

While no new date has yet been announced, you can entertain yourself in the meantime by feasting on some of these astonishing stats about Musk’s red planet rocket.

It’s the world’s most powerful operational rocket

Being, essentially, three Falcon 9 rockets strapped together (a single Falcon 9 with two additional Falcon 9 first stages acting as boosters), the Falcon Heavy promises to swat away the pesky confines of gravity like a giant swatting away a fly.

SpaceX hails it as the “world’s most powerful rocket,” and that’s no exaggeration. In fact, it is the most powerful operational rocket in the world by a factor of two, boasting more than 5 million pounds of thrust. To put that figure in perspective, it’s the equivalent of eighteen 747 airplanes firing at once.

Its maiden flight will carry a fairly unusual payload

You know Elon Musk is deadly serious about the success of his Falcon Heavy maiden flight when he promises that its cargo will include his personal Tesla Roadster as a dummy payload.

As Musk wrote on Twitter, the first Falcon Heavy’s “payload will be my midnight cherry Tesla Roadster playing ‘Space Oddity.’ Destination is Mars orbit. Will be in deep space for a billion years or so if it doesn’t blow up on ascent.” We totally hope he’s not kidding. At any rate, it beats firing monkeys and dogs into space.

It can carry a whole lot more than just a Tesla Roadster, though

The Falcon Heavy’s 27 engines and three cores are capable of transporting more than 54 metric tons (119,000 lb), including passengers, luggage, crew and fuel.

That’s equivalent to a 737 jetliner and more than twice the payload of the next closest operational vehicle, the Delta IV Heavy. Only the Saturn V moon rocket, which was last flown in 1973, was able to deliver more payload to orbit.

It has taken longer than planned

Even before its recent delay, the Falcon Heavy was running late. Announced in 2011, it was originally supposed to have its maiden voyage back in 2013 or 2014, only for that date to be pushed back.

In 2015, SpaceX said the first rocket launch would happen in early 2016. When no launch transpired, that date was pushed back to late 2016.  Then, after one of SpaceX’s rockets exploded on a Florida launchpad in 2016, that date was put on hold until 2017. In the middle of the year, Musk tweeted that this would happen in November, before delaying it once more to January — and now beyond that as well.

“It actually ended up being way harder to do Falcon Heavy than we thought,” Musk said last year. “Really way, way more difficult than we originally thought. We were pretty naive about that.”

Given the scale of the undertaking, delays are no great surprise, of course. Hopefully early 2018 will turn out to be the time when this eagerly anticipated test launch does finally happen — for real this time!

It is “competitively priced”

Everyone’s idea of affordable is a bit different, but SpaceX is confident that the Falcon Heavy offers “competitive pricing.” A fully kitted-out version will set you back $90 million on a standard payment plan.

Too rich for your blood? SpaceX will offer “modest discounts,” although you’ll probably need to buy a few rockets to secure this. Or arrive at the showroom in a brand new Tesla Model X.

It has impressive fuel economy (although not as good as Elon Musk wants)

Unlike the Tesla, Falcon Heavy needs actual honest-to-goodness fuel to power it, but at least it promises pretty good fuel economy. Not only does it (as mentioned) claim 2x the payload of the next closest operation vehicle, the Delta IV Heavy, but also that it will deliver this at just one-third the cost.

As of April 2016, the idea is that Falcon Heavy will be able to lift 2,268 kg to GTO (geostationary transfer orbit) for a cost of $3,968.25 per kilo. That’s more than 3.5x the $1,100 per kg that Musk stated was his ultimate goal with SpaceX when appearing before the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation in May 2004.

Still, it’s an impressive step in the right direction — and the plan to have a recoverable upper stage should lead to a further reduction in cost for subsequent missions.

There’s something bigger coming down the track

The Falcon Heavy was designed from day one with the mission of playing a key role in Musk’s dream of carrying humans to Mars. But it won’t be the final piece in the puzzle.

As Gwynne Shotwell, president and COO of SpaceX, told Ashlee Vance, author of Elon Musk: How The Billionaire CEO of SpaceX and Tesla is Shaping Our Future: “Our Falcon Heavy will not take a busload of people to Mars. So, there’s something after Heavy. We’re working on it.”

As has since been revealed, that “something” would be the Interplanetary Transport System, a.k.a. The Big F***ing Rocket.

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.


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.


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.


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.