Thursday, September 21, 2017
Bridenstine's first public comments since being nominated as NASA administrator Sept. 2 came in written responses to questions from the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. The committee will consider Bridenstine's nomination during a hearing that has not yet been scheduled.
When asked to list three top challenges facing NASA, Bridenstine wrote, “Maintaining and building international partnerships while ending dependency on unfriendly nations to avoid exploitable vulnerabilities.”
“NASA is an incredible leadership and soft power tool for the United States of America,” he added. “With NASA's global leadership, we will pioneer the solar system, sending humans back to the Moon, to Mars and beyond."
The congressman did not elaborate on which countries he was referring to as unfriendly, though Russia is a strong possibility. The U.S. relies on Russia to get astronauts to the International Space Station. The U.S. also purchases Russian rocket engines.
On July 28, a Russian Soyuz rocket lifted off from Kazakhstan carrying American astronaut Randy Bresnik, along with Russian and Italian astronauts. There are currently three Americans, two Russians and an Italian man at the ISS.
When Congress voted in July to implement further sanctions on Russia as a result of its perceived meddling in America's presidential election, it carved out exceptions for aerospace. Still, the sanctions angered Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, who overseas his nation's space industry.
"They say that 'space is outside politics.' We take the 'space is outside politics' slogan into account, but nothing lasts forever,” Rogozin told a Russian television station, referring to the United States.
After the U.S. implemented sanctions against Russia in 2014, Rogozin mocked NASA, suggesting on Twitter that “the U.S. deliver its astronauts to the ISS with a trampoline.”
Bridenstine, if he was referring to Russia, wouldn't be the first member of Congress to grow concerned the longtime foe could use its aerospace leverage. U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said last November the U.S. should stop buying engines from Russia.
“Purchasing these engines provides financial benefit to Vladimir Putin's cronies, including individuals sanctioned by the United States, and subsidizes the Russian military-industrial base,” he said on the Senate floor.
Contrarily, retired astronaut Buzz Aldrin, the second man to step foot on the Moon, has said the U.S. should partner with another longtime foe, China, on space missions, including efforts to reach Mars.
Bridenstine mentioned two other challenges facing NASA in his written responses to the Senate Commerce Committee: "Maintaining consistency and constancy of purpose" and "bringing together traditional space companies and new space entrepreneurs." The responses were submitted Sept. 11 and released online this week.
One response may have been an attempt to tamp down concerns about his commitment to science. Bridenstine has been skeptical of claims that humans are causing the planet to warm and his fellow conservatives have opposed some Earth science funding within NASA's budget. But in his written responses, Bridenstine said he has "come to appreciate how complex Earth is as a system."
"NASA must continue studying our home planet," he wrote. "Unfortunately, Earth science sometimes gets pitted against planetary science for resources. This is not in the best interest of NASA, the United States or the world."
"NASA must continue to advance both Earth science and planetary science for the benefit of mankind," he added.
Still, Bridenstine is likely to face criticism for his past comments on climate change, as well as his lack of scientific credentials, during his nomination hearing. The Commerce Committee's leading Democrat is U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., the only astronaut currently in Congress.
Nelson has said he will oppose Bridenstine because "the head of NASA ought to be a space professional, not a politician." U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., opposes Bridenstine for the same reason. If approved by the committee and full Senate, Bridenstine would be the first member of Congress to become NASA administrator.
Bridenstine, in his written remarks, heaped praise on NASA and its astronauts. He called his nomination "humbling and energizing."
"I can think of no higher honor in the service of my country than to lead NASA," he wrote.
Finding another Webb was no easy task. The president considered several excellent candidates, some of whom we personally admire, but in the spirit of Webb’s leadership, U.S. Rep. Jim Bridenstine is the president’s nominee for NASA administrator. Rumors of Mr. Bridenstine’s appointment have been swirling in the space community since the spring and during that time, the two of us have come to know him and his record. The more we learned, the happier we’ve become. We have found that Rep. Bridenstine possesses a remarkable understanding of the science, technology, economics and the policies that surround NASA. He is highly qualified to lead the world’s finest scientific and exploratory organization.
Anyone who doubts that should look closely at Mr. Bridenstine’s web page for his American Space Renaissance Act (H.R. 4945) at http://spacerenaissanceact.com/. The ASRA offers a clear and workable plan to ensure that the benefits of space technology and resources continue to support exploration, science, American national security and economic development. As a space explorer and an academic we both applaud this integrated approach. Criticisms of Mr. Bridenstine’s nomination have centered around three themes, each of which are easily refuted.
He’s a leader, not a politician
Firstly, it has been suggested that a “politician” shouldn’t run NASA. We share a healthy skepticism of politicians and the suggestion of a congressman as administrator initially gave us pause. However, his record revealed that Jim Bridenstine is far from being a character out of House of Cards. He served with distinction as a Naval aviator in Afghanistan and Iraq. He continued to serve his country in the Naval Reserve and then the Air National Guard. He had no political career before launching a surprisingly successful 2012 campaign against an incumbent Republican in Oklahoma’s first district. Personally, we can tell you Mr. Bridenstine is an American patriot and a man of integrity who shares our passion for a vibrant NASA.
We’d remind those insisting that only a scientist or astronaut could run a space agency that James Webb was a lawyer by training and spent his entire career in the bowels of governmental bureaucracies. Apollo succeeded, because Webb understood people and practiced effective management.
Jim Bridenstine has a triple major from Rice University that should serve him well in leading NASA: psychology, economics and business. He also holds an MBA from Cornell, an educational tool that former NASA Administrator Mike Griffin applied well when defining the successful Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program. Griffin’s business school approach to plugging the launch gap NASA faced after the retirement of the space shuttle lead to two new commercial rockets supplying the International Space Station and launched a revived American commercial launch sector. Jim Bridenstine’s innovative thinking promises to extend that record of success.
He’s an Earth sciences advocate, not a climate change denier
Secondly, there has been a great deal of froth over Mr. Bridenstine’s position on climate change. He has always been a strong advocate of Earth sciences, commercial remote imaging, as well as robust weather and climate-data collection. He notes that, “My constituents get killed in tornadoes.” Mr. Bridenstine has clearly stated that he believes the climate is changing, that human activities are a contributing factor and that we have a national interest in understanding its causes and outcomes. He has supported several programs to collect additional climate data including championing the Weather Forecasting Improvement Act and support for efforts to launch satellites aimed at measuring atmospheric gasses via occultation (interference) of GPS signals. He also supported the requirement that climate trends be investigated as part of the 2018 Defense Authorization Act. His interests should be great news for firms like California-based imaging firm Planet and small launch startups like Virgin Orbit.
He’s a peacemaker in the space wars
Finally, some advocates of traditional space programs may be concerned about Jim’s intentions toward NASA’s contracting model. We are happy to see that Bridenstine offers a uniquely balanced approach. He rejects the either/or battles over policy and funding that have plagued our space program for the last generation and kept us from going as far as we could. These battles have pitted human spaceflight against robotic missions, astrophysics against Earth science and positioned traditional exploration programs against emerging entrepreneurial endeavors. The American public celebrates our space agency’s success in all these realms and deserves a NASA Administrator who shares their joy.
Jim Bridenstine is deeply interested in innovative engineering and business techniques that can help NASA do more with the public’s money. He is committed to continuing the SLS/Orion program and in integrating it into longer-term transportation systems. He also understands that while we must recapture the glory of Apollo we cannot afford another series of disposable missions. He supports public-private partnerships to develop economically sustainable solutions that will support scientific research and commercial development for generations to come. Specifically, we have spoken to Jim Bridenstine about permanent transportation systems to both the Moon and Mars. He understands that such a service, based on the Aldrin Cycler model, would change the economics of space exploration and resource exploitation.
We heartedly support the president’s nomination of Mr. Bridenstine as the next NASA administrator wish him Godspeed during the Senate confirmation process. We encourage you to join us in uniting the space community and our nation behind this nominee so NASA can return to its job of boldly exploring the final frontier.
Buzz Aldrin is an engineer, former U.S. Air Force pilot, former NASA astronaut, lunar explorer and advocate for Mars exploration.
Greg Autry studies space entrepreneurship at the University of Southern California and is a former White House liaison to NASA.
Wednesday, September 20, 2017
Ellen Ochoa is a four-time astronaut who has served as director of NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston since 2013. As part of that job, Ochoa oversees a space center that trains astronauts for spaceflight missions, houses Mission Control, and manages the International Space Station and Orion spacecraft programs.
In recent years, the space center has also played a central role in preparing for and publicizing NASA's "Journey to Mars," the poorly funded effort by the agency to send humans to the red planet in the 2030s. Orion has been touted as a centerpiece of this strategy, and astronauts have talked about using what they've learned on the station and applying it toward going to Mars.
Now, however, key Trump appointees are beginning to talk about sending humans to the Moon before Mars. The administration's choice to serve as executive secretary of the National Space Council, Scott Pace, favors a return to the Moon. So does Trump's choice to lead NASA, Jim Bridenstine. It seems likely that, at some point, NASA's human destination will switch from "Mars" to the "Moon, then Mars," echoing the space policy first established during the administration of George W. Bush.
Earlier this month, on the 55th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy's Moon speech at Rice University, Ochoa appeared on a stage at the university alongside Apollo 13 astronaut Fred Haise. The director of the Rice Space Institute, David Alexander, asked Ochoa how Johnson Space Center would react to such a change in direction.
"If we do see an administration that decides to make a little bit of a turn and focus a little bit more on the Moon, I think we're very well set up to do it," Ochoa replied. "It's not at all incompatible with what we're doing," she added.
NASA's current plan involves testing out the Orion spacecraft and Space Launch System rocket in two test flights between 2019 and 2023 before starting to assemble a "Deep Space Gateway" in an orbit near the Moon. This outpost would be used to test technologies in a "deep space" environment and could then serve as a staging area for missions to Mars or lunar operations.
"What we've really tried to do at NASA is leave a lot of options open, to develop the basic capabilities—the spacecraft Orion and the heavy lift launch vehicle—and then talk with other partners about what they are interested in doing," Ochoa said. "Then we have begun to build the infrastructure around the Moon, from which a variety of things are possible."
How much of the current plan will survive a rewrite by the Trump administration is unclear. For example, the Deep Space Gateway may be dropped from the budget in favor of a program to land cargo and crew directly on the Moon. What seems clear, however, is that Johnson Space Center, which played the leading role in the Apollo program, would be happy to play an important part in sending humans back.
Oklahoma Congressman Jim Bridenstine, who was nominated to become NASA's next administrator by the Trump administration on September 1, may get a Senate confirmation hearing as early as next week. The choice of the 42-year-old Republican pilot has raised objections among some of his fellow members of Congress because of his lack of a technical background. Environmentalists have also objected to Bridenstine due to his views on climate change.
However, a pre-hearing questionnaire submitted by Bridenstine addresses some of these criticisms and also offers some important clues about where he would like to see the space agency go. "With NASA's global leadership, we will pioneer the Solar System, send humans back to the Moon, to Mars, and beyond. This requires a consistent, sustainable strategy for deep space exploration." Bridenstine supports human missions to the Moon before going to Mars.
Among the first critics of Bridenstine's nomination on September 1 were Florida's two senators, Democrat Bill Nelson and Republican Marco Rubio. Nelson told Politico that the head of NASA should have a professional background, rather than a political one. Rubio echoed Nelson's sentiments, saying, “I just think it could be devastating for the space program. Obviously, being from Florida, I’m very sensitive to anything that slows up NASA and its mission." He added that NASA's administrator should have a scientific perspective.
However, as Space Policy Online subsequently noted, two of NASA's previous 11 administrators have had no technical experience. And arguably the agency's most effective administrator, James Webb, who led NASA during the Mercury, Gemini, and initial Apollo missions, was a lawyer.
Although Bridenstine is a politician, there are likely few people in Congress more qualified to lead the space agency. As a Naval aviator, he flew missions off of aircraft carriers and combat missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. As a member of Congress, Bridenstine immersed himself in space-related committees and policy decisions, seeking to reform US aerospace efforts in both civil and military space. The conservative has previously outlined broad goals to modernize the US spaceflight enterprise with his American Space Enterprise Act.
Perhaps the most vocal criticism of Bridenstine has come from environmental groups, which oppose Bridenstine's views on climate change (because of statements like these). One group, Climate Hawks Vote, urged people to call their representatives to oppose Trump's nominee, saying, "NASA needs to be run by someone who respects science. Not climate denier Jim Bridenstine."
However, as NASA Watch has reported, Bridenstine's record on climate change is not entirely clear-cut, as some of his votes have indicated concern about the future effects of climate change and the need for further study. For example, earlier this year he said, "There are real changes in the Arctic that do affect the Navy. The Arctic ice is disappearing. There are strategic changes that are being implicated here. And it's important for the Department of Defense to report to Congress on this."
As part of his questionnaire, Bridenstine wrote that NASA should continue studying humanity's home planet along with its mission of planetary science to study Mars and the rest of the Solar System. "NASA must continue to advance both Earth science and planetary science for the benefit of mankind."
One of Bridenstine's consistent themes as a US representative was to push NOAA to rely more on the private sector for data collection about Earth's atmosphere. It seems possible that, along these lines, he will push NASA to do less "operational" work to enable NOAA's data collection and do more actual research.
It is certainly true that Bridenstine is not an advocate for immediate, consequential action on climate change. But amid the potential choices of the Trump administration to lead NASA, he does not appear to be dogmatic about ending funding for science—including Earth science—from the agency's budget or mandate.
Some of the opposition to Bridenstine during the last six months has come, quietly, from the legacy aerospace industry. (Likely, this was the driver of Rubio's initial criticism of Bridenstine.) The large aerospace firms who have traditionally fulfilled civil and military aerospace contracts, including Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Orbital ATK, and other companies are skeptical of Bridenstine's chumminess with the commercial space industry.
After his nomination, the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, which represents "new space" firms such as SpaceX, immediately praised the choice. "NASA needs dedicated and inspired leadership, and Representative Bridenstine is an outstanding choice to provide precisely that,” said Alan Stern, board chair of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation.
The Coalition for Deep Space Exploration, which represents more traditional aerospace companies and those firms working on NASA's Space Launch System and Orion spacecraft, offered a more muted comment four days after the nomination, saying, "We look forward to working with NASA’s new leadership team." In a subsequent statement to The Washington Post, the organization's executive director, Mary Lynne Dittmar, backed away from a full endorsement.
As part of his questionnaire, Bridenstine sought to allay some of those concerns by listing reconciling these differences as one of NASA's top three challenges: "Bringing together traditional space companies and new space entrepreneurs into a comprehensive NASA vision to maximize resources and create efficiencies."
This approach appears to be working. The leading congressional champion of NASA's Space Launch System rocket, Alabama Republican Senator Richard Shelby, tweeted Tuesday that he had met with Bridenstine. "I look forward to supporting him throughout this process," Shelby added. This suggests that Bridenstine will win his nomination fairly easily.
Thursday, September 14, 2017
The Cassini mission, named after the 17th century Italian-French astronomer Jean-Dominique Cassini, marks the end of an era for NASA. It is likely the final "flagship-class" mission (those costing more than $1 billion) fielded by the space agency, if NASA Administrator Charles Bolden's claims from 2013 are still accurate. Other flagships included the vaunted Viking and Voyager missions as well as the Mars Curiosity rover and the Hubble Space telescope.
The Cassini mission started in 1982 when the European Science Foundation and NASA were still kicking around the idea of conducting their own respective solo missions to Saturn. Despite an impassioned report from astronaut Sally Ride in 1986, titled NASA Leadership and America's Future in Space, NASA and the ESA decided to go in halfsies on a joint mission.
However, by 1994, the mission's Congressional critics had begun to question the value of such a mission. The program had already eclipsed $3.3 billion in development costs -- that's $5 billion in 2017 money, adjusted for inflation, or about half of what we spent on the new James Webb Space Telescope. It was only because the ESA was also contributing funds to the mission and NASA was able to demonstrate that technology developed for Cassini would carry over to the Mars Global Surveyor, Mars Pathfinder and the Spitzer Space Telescope projects that this one was allowed to move forward.
That forward momentum came to a sudden halt three years later and just a day after then-President Clinton approved the mission. On October 4th, 1997, 800 protesters showed up (27 of which were arrested) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in opposition to the Cassini launch, which was then scheduled for October 7th.
The protesters were worried that, should the Titan IV rocket ferrying the orbiter into space suffer a catastrophic mishap during launch, it would vaporize the 73 pounds of Plutonium-238 that the Cassini carried and spread radioactive fallout across central Florida. The protesters were even more worried about that Cassini's upcoming gravitational slingshot, which would use the Earth's pull to accelerate the spacecraft into the outer solar system, could spread fallout across the globe, should Cassini accidentally re-enter orbit during the maneuver. The Green Party even went so far as to file a federal lawsuit against the government in a Hawaiian court to halt the launch.
"Winds can blow (plutonium) into Disney World, Universal City, into the citrus industry and destroy the economy of central Florida," Michio Kaku, professor of theoretical physics at the City College of New York, told Mother Jones. He calculated that as many as a million people could be exposed to radiation if the launch went wrong.
The protesters' issue focused on, again, the 73 pounds of Plutonium-238 aboard the Cassini orbiter. This wasn't the first time that NASA had utilized radioactive materials as a power source for its long-endurance spacecraft -- New Horizons, Galileo, and Ulysses all carried similar setups -- but none had ever carried this much Pu-238 at one time before. The orbiter actually employed three radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs) during its 11-year mission. They're not for propulsion, mind you (that's what the gravitational slingshots were for), but rather a means to power the onboard scientific instruments for the duration of the trip.
RTGs are fairly simple devices and have been used for both civilian and military applications since their development in the 1950s. They consist of a container of radioactive material with a pair of thermocouples attached to the outside. The opposite end of each thermocouple is also attached to a heat sink. As the material decays, it produces heat. The difference in temperature between the container and the heatsink enables the thermocouples to generate an electrical charge. It's the same principle that allows camp stoves to also charge your phone.
Cassini's instruments aren't particularly power-hungry, drawing around 600 - 700 watts of electricity, but 11 years is a long time in the cold depths of interplanetary space. So why not just use solar panels, Cassini protesters argued, as NASA had for a bunch of other missions? The problem with that is the sheer distance between Saturn and the Sun -- 888 million miles on average. NASA did actually look into outfitting Cassini with solar panels but the math simply didn't work.
The Mars Rover does well enough with solar power, for example, but it's six times closer to the Sun than Saturn. In order to produce the requisite wattage while in Saturn's orbit, the Cassini would have had to sport panels the size of tennis courts. These would have had proven too bulky and too heavy to get the orbiter out of Earth's atmosphere.
Plutonium-238 is 280 times more radioactive than Plutonium-239, the stuff we use to make nuclear weapons, and has a half life of 88 years. That makes it a potent and long-lasting power source. What's more, the alpha particles that Pu-238 emits can't penetrate further than a few cellular levels, so the biggest threat comes from inhaling the stuff. However, "it cannot be exploded like a bomb," Beverly Cook of the Energy Department, told CNN. "It is an alpha emitter. Alpha radiation can be stopped by a piece of paper."
The chances of having Cassini's payload of nuclear material vaporize during a catastrophic engineering failure were exceedingly remote, according to NASA. "This is not a nuclear reactor. They are nuclear batteries," Wes Huntress, associate administrator for space science at NASA, explained to PBS Newshour. "They're not used for propulsion. It's not a nuclear power plant. We don't have any nuclear reactions going on. We simply use the isotope to generate heat, and from the heat we generate electricity for the spacecraft."
Even so, NASA spent a lot of time working out how to most safely utilize a plutonium-based power source. First, NASA isn't just shoving glowing green rocks into the RTG and closing the hatch. The Plutonium-238 that NASA sends to space is actually plutonium dioxide, a more inert version that is produced exclusively for space missions by the Department of Energy. They're basically marshmallow-sized insoluble ceramic nuggets. 72 of these were encased in iridium and graphite containers capable of the ludicrously intense heat generated during atmospheric reentry, much less a piddly launchpad explosion. And even if the pellets were exposed to vast amounts of heat, they're designed to break down into chunks rather than vaporize, further reducing the chances that someone will breath them in.
And, as for the dangers posed by a botched gravitational assist, Huntress was not impressed by the protesters' reasoning. "This Earth fly-by is something that we have done many, many times before at other planets, as well as at Earth, the last time being with the Galileo nuclear-powered spacecraft," he told PBS. "And we manage these thing with very high precision. And Cassini is, in fact, not coming nearly as close to the Earth as did Galileo and Galileo's approach managed with very fine -- one kilometer accuracy -- with no difficulty whatsoever."
Despite these assurances, many of the protesters remained unconvinced. "Jimmy the Greek would say: Look at the track record," Kaku said to Mother Jones. "The track record is one out of 20 booster rockets blow up on launch ... Ten percent of our space probes actually come down." Indeed, out of the 23 missions NASA has attempted with nuclear payloads, three failed. However, the RTGs in each instance survived the mishaps intact. Overall, NASA figured there was only a 1 in 1,400 chance at launch that the plutonium might be released, 1 in 476 during its trip into space and less than 1 in a million when the orbiter swung back past Earth in 1999 during its slingshot maneuver.
Richard Spehalski, program manager for Cassini at Jet Propulsion Laboratory, was not impressed by the reasoning of Kaku and the protesters. "They're taking our statements and our documentation out of context and citing consequences that aren't even possible," he responded in MoJo.
Even if the worst did happen: the orbiter failed its flyby and spread nuclear material over an estimated 5 billion people as it re-entered the atmosphere, NASA argued that the dosage of such an event would be about a millirem per year. For comparison, the average American sucks up about 620 millirem annually, roughly half of which comes from cosmic background radiation.
So despite Kaku's continued complaints to MoJo -- "This is a science experiment, and we are the guinea pigs," he said -- both the District Court in Hawaii and the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals struck down the Green Party's lawsuit. Thus the launch was allowed to move forward. On October 15th, the Titan IV rocket successfully lifted off and launched its cargo on a seven-year journey towards perhaps the most recognizable planet in our solar system.
And it's a damn good thing the courts agreed with NASA, given how many astronomical wonders Cassini has helped discover over the past decade. In 2005, it found geysers blasting liquid water from subsurface oceans (and theoretically, whatever was living there) into space. The orbiter mapped the liquid methane rivers of Titan; discovered massive hurricane-like storms at both of Saturn's poles, imaged the vertical structure of the planet's rings for the first time and delivered the Huygens probe, the only human-made machine to land on a moon in the outer solar system to date. That's to say nothing of the trickle-down nature of space engineering and design that will see tech from this mission be adapted, improved and reused in future missions. What was Bolden even thinking?
Wednesday, September 13, 2017
The TV channel provided no details of the EmDrive microwave engine, saying only that it would soon be tested in space.
The EmDrive is built around a microwave-generating magnetron and a resonator, which accumulates the energy of their fluctuations. This generates thrust, which can’t be explained by the conventional energy conservation law.
The magnetron pushes microwaves into a closed truncated cone, driving them against its short end thus propelling the craft forward without producing any exhaust.
This differs from the type of propulsion currently used by spacecraft, which burn large quantities of fuel to generate a massive amount of energy to rocket the craft into space.
Scientists believe that a rocket propulsion system based on electromagnetic drives engines could enable humans to reach the outer fringes of our solar system in a matter of just a few months.
A report earlier published by NASA specialists said that the EmDrive indeed generates “constant thrust” using neither fuel nor creating any directed radiation pressure – a phenomenon, which experts say flies in the face of the universally —recognized law of conservation of momentum.
Electromagnetic drive engines, which require no fuel, could pave the way for manned missions to Mars, Jupiter and its moons, asteroids, and eventually to deep space, which is something that China plans to accomplish in the next few years.
China's State Council has released a white paper about its ambitious space program, including the first soft —landing on the far side of the moon in 2018, and a Mars mission to carry out orbiting and roving exploration before the end of the decade.
"We're pleased to be working with NASA on this ambitious public-private partnership," said Dr. Jon Morse, CEO of BoldlyGo. "Much of the coronagraph imaging technology needed for Project Blue to take direct images of exoplanets from space has been developed through NASA-funded programs. Having access to NASA's scientific and technical expertise throughout the mission lifecycle is invaluable," Morse continued.
The Space Act Agreement is non-reimbursable, with no exchange of funds between NASA and BoldlyGo. It allows NASA employees - scientists and engineers - to interact with the Project Blue team through its mission development phases to help review mission design plans and to share scientific results on Alpha Centauri and exoplanets along with the latest technology tests being undertaken at NASA facilities. NASA's engagement in its consulting role will be triggered through a set of milestones as technical work is accomplished and the private consortium leading Project Blue raises the funds necessary to continue mission development.
The agreement also calls for the raw and processed data from Project Blue to be made available to NASA within one year of its acquisition on orbit via a publicly accessible online data archive. The Project Blue team has been planning such an archive for broadly sharing the data with the global astronomical community and for enabling citizen scientist participation.
BoldlyGo and the Project Blue mission team are responsible for the funding and design of a small telescope capable of blocking a star's light in order to image surrounding exoplanets. The telescope will take 3-4 years to construct and launch. Once in orbit, Project Blue will perform an intensive two-year study of Alpha Centauri -- the closest star system to Earth -- with the goal of identifying and capturing a "pale blue dot" image of an Earth-size exoplanet in the habitable zone of the Alpha Centauri A and B stars. The habitable zone is the distance from a star where orbiting planets can have surface temperatures that allow liquid water to pool. While NASA's Kepler mission has shown that terrestrial-sized planets are common in our galaxy, Project Blue would be the first to image in visible light a planet as small as Earth that could potentially sustain life.