Wednesday, April 18, 2018

NASA's TESS Satellite Launches to Seek Out New Alien Worlds

The agency's Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) launched today (April 18) from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, rising off the pad atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket at 6:51 p.m. EDT (2251 GMT) and deploying into Earth orbit 49 minutes later.

TESS will hunt for alien worlds around stars in the sun's neighborhood — planets that other missions can then study in detail. And the spacecraft will be incredibly prolific, if all goes according to plan.

"TESS is going to dramatically increase the number of planets that we have to study," TESS principal investigator George Ricker, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said during a pre-launch briefing Sunday (April 15).

"It's going to more than double the number that have been seen and detected by Kepler," Ricker added, referring to NASA's Kepler space telescope, which has spotted 2,650 confirmed exoplanets to date —about 70 percent of all the worlds known beyond our solar system.

And the Falcon 9's first stage came back to Earth less than 9 minutes after liftoff today, touching down softly on a robotic SpaceX "drone ship" stationed in the Atlantic Ocean. SpaceX has now pulled off two dozen such landings during Falcon 9 launches — part of the company's push to develop fully and rapidly reusable rockets and spacecraft, a breakthrough that SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk has said will revolutionize spaceflight.

SpaceX has re-flown 11 of these first stages to date, but the tally didn't increase today: This Falcon 9 was brand-new.

Today's launch was originally scheduled for Monday evening (April 16), but it was delayed by two days to give SpaceX time to investigate a potential issue with the rocket's guidance, navigation and control systems.

Looking for nearby worlds

Like Kepler, TESS will find alien planets using the "transit method," noting the tiny brightness dips these worlds cause when they cross their host stars' faces. But there are some big differences between the missions.

During its prime mission from 2009 through 2013, Kepler stared continuously at a single patch of sky, monitoring about 150,000 stars simultaneously. (Kepler is now embarked on a different mission, called K2, during which it studies a variety of cosmic objects and phenomena, exoplanets among them. But the iconic telescope's days are numbered; it's almost out of fuel.) Most of these stars are far from the sun — from several hundred light-years to 1,000 light-years or more.

But TESS will conduct a broad sky survey during its two-year prime mission, covering about 85 percent of the sky. The satellite will focus on the nearest and brightest stars, using its four cameras to look for worlds that may be close enough to be studied in depth by other instruments.

Indeed, TESS will rely on a variety of other telescopes on the ground and in space to help determine which of its "candidates" are bona fide planets, and to characterize the newly discovered worlds. One such partner will be NASA's $8.8 billion James Webb Space Telescope, which is scheduled to launch in 2020. James Webb should be able to probe the atmospheres of at least a few TESS planets for oxygen, methane and other possible signs of life, NASA officials have said.

"TESS is the first step toward finding habitable planets," mission project scientist Stephen Rinehart, who's based at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, said during Sunday's briefing.

The mission will be a big step toward exploring such worlds up-close as well, team members said. In 50 to 100 years, humanity will probably be capable of launching tiny robotic spacecraft to explore a number of nearby exoplanets, perhaps using technology like that being developed by the $100 million Breakthrough Starshot project, MIT's Ricker said.

"We are putting together a catalog of the very best targets for those probes," he said. "That's one thing that I think will be a lasting legacy of TESS."

A unique orbit

TESS also differs from Kepler in its orbit. Whereas Kepler loops around the sun, TESS will zoom around our planet, on a highly elliptical, 13.7-day orbit that no spacecraft has ever occupied before.

This orbit will take TESS as close to Earth as 67,000 miles (108,000 kilometers) and as far away as 232,000 miles (373,000 km). The satellite will be able to beam its onboard data down to Earth quickly and efficiently during the close approaches.

The orbit is also incredibly stable and features relatively low radiation exposure and low thermal variation, said Robert Lockwood, TESS spacecraft program manager at Orbital ATK, the Virginia-based company that built the satellite for NASA.

"It really is a Goldilocks orbit," Lockwood told

But TESS won't get there for a while. After a number of engine firings and one dramatic maneuver — a close flyby of the moon on May 17 — TESS will arrive in its final orbit in mid-June, if all goes according to plan. The science campaign will start shortly thereafter.

The TESS mission is capped at $200 million, not including launch costs


Sunday, April 15, 2018

Thursday, April 12, 2018

What is Alpha Centauri hiding? Searches for Earth-like planets ramp up around our nearest stellar neighbor

Alpha Centauri, a three-star system just 4 light-years away that is the sun's nearest neighbor, ought to be a great place to look for Earth-like planets. But last week, at a meeting of the European Astronomical Society (EAS) here, astronomers lamented the way the system has thwarted discovery efforts so far—and announced new efforts to probe it. "It's very likely that there are planets," says Pierre Kervella of the Paris Observatory in Meudon, France, but the nature and positions of the stars complicate the search. "It's a little frustrating for planet searchers."

The system's two sunlike stars, Alpha Centauri A and B, orbit each other closely while Proxima Centauri, a tempestuous red dwarf, hangs onto the system tenuously in a much more distant orbit. In 2016, astronomers discovered an Earth-mass planet around Proxima Centauri, but the planet, blasted by radiation and fierce stellar winds, seems unlikely to be habitable. Astrobiologists think the other two stars are more likely to host temperate, Earth-like planets.

Maksym Lisogorskyi, an astronomer at the University of Hertfordshire in Hatfield, U.K., tried to find them with an instrument on the European Southern Observatory's (ESO's) 3.6-meter telescope in Chile. He and his colleagues looked for Doppler shifts in the spectral lines of the stars' light that would be caused if a planet tugged them back and forth. But Lisogorskyi told the meeting that the stars' surfaces are turbulent, and prone to flares that also jiggle the spectral lines, masking the subtle signals from any Earth-size planets. "The lines do all kinds of things," he says. Although Alpha Centauri has been a primary target for the planet-finding instrument since it was inaugurated in 2005, it has seen nothing so far.


Elon Musk’s SpaceX aims to raise $500M as it makes progress on its Big F’n Rocket

Elon Musk’s SpaceX is aiming to raise up to $507 million in a new funding round, according to documents filed with the state of Delaware last week.

SpaceX has authorized 3 million shares of stock for this Series I round, valued at $169 each, according to documents provided to GeekWire by Lagniappe Labs, creator of the Prime Unicorn Index. The round could bring SpaceX to a valuation of approximately $23.7 billion if all shares are sold.

This new round follows a big raise last year. In November, SpaceX landed $100 million as part of a larger $450 million round.

SpaceX is coming off the successful launch of the Falcon Heavy rocket in February that captivated the nation in a way that harkened back to the early days of the space race. But Musk has come to see Falcon Heavy primarily as a transitional step to an even more powerful launch vehicle, known as the BFR (which stands for Big Falcon Rocket or Big F***ing Rocket to others).

BFR is SpaceX’s first Mars transport vehicle. But Musk plans to use BFR as an all-purpose space vehicle — for trips ranging from point-to-point suborbital passenger travel, to orbital satellite deployment, to moon missions and more. The company is making progress toward short-hop test flights on Earth by the middle of next year, with a timeline calling for the first cargo flights to head for Mars in 2022.

These massive funding rounds show why space travel today is largely being pursued by the world’s wealthiest geeks. Musk’s net worth is $19.4 billion. Jeff Bezos, the world’s richest person, says he sells about $1 billion worth of his Amazon stock annually to put toward his Blue Origin space venture.


Tuesday, April 3, 2018

NASA’s next planet hunter is ready to find undiscovered worlds

The search for extraterrestrial life is about to get serious, as the U.S. space agency announced in a statement this week. NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) has completed all certifications and is currently undergoing final preparations for an April 16 launch aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida.

Initially slated for a two-year mission, TESS will ascend to an elliptical 13.7-day orbit around the Earth. It’s a unique and extreme orbit that’s never been used before, varying as close as 67,000 miles and as far away as 232,000 miles from its home planet. According to, the stable orbit will allow TESS to stay in space for decades without any need for course corrections.

Outfitted with four wide-angle cameras, TESS will be able to observe 85 percent of the surrounding sky as it looks for exoplanets. The instruments on the spacecraft will map 26 different “sectors” of the sky over a two-year period.

Specifically, TESS will be looking for a phenomenon called a “transit,” which is when a planet passes in front of its star. The resulting decrease in brightness can be observed and measured with spectroscopy, giving astronomers a better idea of the size and composition of the planet.

“TESS is opening a door for a whole new kind of study,” said Stephen Rinehart at Goddard Space Flight Center. “We’re going to be able study individual planets and start talking about the differences between planets. The targets TESS finds are going to be fantastic subjects for research for decades to come.”

TESS is replacing the aging Kepler telescope, which is running on fumes and will soon be unable to maneuver. Unlike TESS, Kepler is in a solar orbit and can only make observations in one direction. “TESS will cast a wider net than ever before for enigmatic worlds whose properties can be probed by NASA’s upcoming James Webb Space Telescope and other missions,” said Paul Hertz of NASA.

Kepler used the same methods to discover more than 2,600 exoplanets, but it was always observing the same area of space and most of the planets were more than a thousand light-years away. TESS will set its sights on more nearby stars that are within 300 light-years of Earth.

The discoveries made by TESS may invite further study with the upcoming $8.8 billion James Webb Telescope planned for launch in 2020. “With those larger telescopes, we’ll be able to look for telltale signs in the atmospheres of those planets that might tell us what the planets are made of, and perhaps even whether they have the kinds of gases in their atmospheres that, on Earth, are an indication of life,” Hertz said at a news conference.

TESS may even moonlight at times to investigate other cosmic phenomenon it encounters besides exoplanets. Researchers will be invited to use the spacecraft as part of a “guest investigator” program, NASA said.

“I don’t think we know everything TESS is going to accomplish,” Rinehart added. “To me, the most exciting part of any mission is the unexpected result, the one that nobody saw coming.”


Wednesday, March 28, 2018

SpaceX and Boeing inch closer toward manned space missions

NASA's Commercial Crew Program is making "significant progress" according to the space agency, which has outlined upcoming missions for both Boeing and SpaceX. The race between the two companies to be the first to provide commercial transportation services in space appears to be neck-and-neck. Boeing has an unmanned orbital flight test scheduled for August this year, while SpaceX plans to complete a crewless flight to the International Space Station in the same month. Crewed missions are then slated to take place in November and December, respectively.

But while NASA says that both companies are "meeting contractual milestones and maturing their designs" for their spacecraft -- Boeing with its CST-100 Starliner and SpaceX with its Dragon 2 vehicle -- there is a strong chance flight tests could slip into 2019. GAO has already predicted delays due to flight certification, while Ars Technica's space editor Eric Berger revealed in a tweet that program manager Kathy Lueders appears to have "low confidence" in crew flights this year. As the delay of the James Webb Space Telescope shows, it doesn't matter how much hype there is around a mission, getting it right the first time is always going to be more important than a schedule.


New fund to boost Japanese space startups

WASHINGTON — The Japanese government, working with private ventures, announced plans March 20 to establish a nearly billion-dollar fund to support the development of space startups in the country.

Prime Minister Shinz┼Ź Abe announced the new initiative, whose cornerstone is a pool of 100 billion yen ($940 million) of venture capital to be offered over five years to companies in the space sector in the country. That funding will be provided by the Development Bank of Japan, Industrial Innovation Organization, and other organizations, although the announcement didn’t state how much funding would come from each organization.

Another element of the “support package” for space venture development is a program that matches investors, including individual investors and companies, with startup companies. Government documents listed 46 members of this “S-Matching” program, ranging from satellite operator Sky Perfect JSAT to Japan Airlines Corporation and Nikon.

Japan has lagged behind the United States and Europe in the development and funding of space startups. A few companies have found success, including ispace, which raised more than $90 million in December to fund development of lunar lander spacecraft. Astroscale, a Singapore-based orbital debris removal company with offices in Japan, raised $25 million last year.

Takeshi Hakamada, founder and chief executive of ispace, welcomed the announcement. “Not only will this move improve the competitiveness of the Japanese private space sector, but it will have positive implications for the sector globally,” he said in a statement. “We believe this will be remembered as a turning point for our burgeoning industry.”

The support package announced by the Japanese government is not limited to funding. It also includes projects to find talent for space startups and technical cooperation between companies and the Japanese space agency JAXA.

Another aspect of the initiative includes the potential to change Japanese law to support companies in the satellite servicing and space resources industries. That could be patterned on laws passed in the United States and Luxembourg to give companies rights to resources extracted from the moon or asteroids.

“I’m very pleased Japan will join the U.S. and Luxembourg in leading the discussion among the international community to establish clear rules for private companies wishing to utilize resources on the moon,” said Kyle Acierno, managing director of ispace Europe, the European office of ispace based in Luxembourg, in a statement.

Acierno is also the chair of the technical panel of The Hague Space Resources Governance Working Group, an organization seeking to develop an international framework on space resource activities. His company, he noted, is the only Japanese company involved so far with the effort.

“This initiative we hope will lead to a consensus on a clear legal framework for private companies utilizing resources on the moon,” he said. “Our target is to illuminate the technical and resource challenges of lunar exploration and inspire governments to recognize the necessity of public-private partnerships in this arena.”