Tuesday, March 20, 2018

SpaceX rival United Launch Alliance stakes future on new Vulcan rocket

SpaceX and its visionary founder Elon Musk win the lion's share of public attention in the commercial rocket arena, with dramatic, increasingly routine booster landings and spectacular stunts like the launch of Musk's Tesla Roadster on the maiden flight of the company's new Falcon Heavy rocket last month.

But arch-rival United Launch Alliance, a much more buttoned-down corporate alliance between Boeing and Lockheed Martin, is responding to the threat posed by the upstart SpaceX with long-range plans to phase out its workhorse Atlas 5 rocket and costly Delta 4 rockets in favor of a powerful, less-expensive launcher known as the Vulcan.

Featuring reusable engines and an advanced, long-lived upper stage, company executives expect the Vulcan to be a major contender in the increasingly fierce slugfest between SpaceX, ULA and other international launch providers.

That battle was center stage Wednesday when the Air Force awarded SpaceX a $290 million contract to launch three Global Positioning System navigation satellites atop Falcon 9 rockets in late 2019 and 2020.

At the same time, ULA won a $351 million contract to launch two Space Situational Awareness Program satellites using an Atlas 5 rocket in 2020, along with a second flight to launch another pair of military payloads.

"I am a big supporter of competition," ULA CEO Tory Bruno said in a recent interview. "Makes it an exciting time to be in space, you never know what's going to happen. In my 35 years as a rocket scientist I never thought I'd see somebody just launch a car into space for fun. I'm not sure what I think of that yet. So yeah I'm with you. These are exciting times."

In one sense, ULA is playing the tortoise to SpaceX's hare. Musk was first out of the blocks with development of reusable rocket boosters, but Bruno believes ULA's Vulcan, with reusable first stage engines, makes the most sense financially given current market projections.

He said the Vulcan's engines represent two-thirds of the cost of the stage. Under ULA's approach, the engines will be recovered and reused after every flight. SpaceX's design calls for recovery of the entire rocket stage. Depending on the weight of the payload and the requirements of its orbit, that cannot be done on every flight.

"It boils down to as simple as this: is it better to recover 100 percent of the value of the booster some of the time or only two thirds of the value of the booster all of the time?" Bruno said reporters during a roundtable discussion.

"Well, that depends on how often you get a big, heavy payload. We've each made market forecasts, and if we're right, our solution will be economically advantageous. If I'm wrong and they're right, then theirs will."

ULA is staking its future on the Vulcan. Equipped with up to six upgraded strap-on solid-fuel boosters, the new rocket will generate some 3.8 million pounds of liftoff thrust.

Out-performing ULA's current heavy lift booster, the three-core Delta 4, the Vulcan will be able to boost 80,000 pounds to low-Earth orbit or up to 35,900 pounds to the elliptical geosynchronous transfer orbits -- GTOs -- used by communications satellites bound for operational stations 22,300 above the equator.

The least powerful version of the new rocket, one without any solid-fuel boosters and an advanced upper stage known as ACES, is expected to sell for less than $100 million. The base version of ULA's Atlas 5 rocket currently goes for about $109 million, Bruno said, while a heavy lift Delta 4 sells for about $350 million.

Even with six solid-fuel boosters and a large payload fairing, the most powerful version of the Vulcan will still cost "more like a quarter or a third of the cost of the Delta 4 Heavy," Bruno said in the interview with CBS News.

For comparison, SpaceX sells a commercial version of its Falcon 9 rocket for $62 million, according to the company's website, although the price climbs to more than $90 million a copy for military missions.

A commercial version of the company's Falcon Heavy rocket, which debuted in February, has a list price of $90 million, but that apparently assumes all three core stages are recovered for reuse. That version of the rocket, according to the SpaceX website, can boost eight metric tons, or 17,600 pounds to geosynchronous transfer orbit.

That's the version launched last month, roughly equivalent, Bruno said, to a "mid-range Atlas." A fully expendable version of the Falcon Heavy can lift nearly 59,000 pounds to that same orbit, easily making it the most powerful rocket in the world.

Bruno said he was impressed by the Falcon Heavy and SpaceX's maturing ability to recover spent rocket stages.

"I'm a rocket scientist, and that was very cool to watch," he said. "I certainly give credit to Elon Musk for sort of creating more excitement around space than we had a decade ago."

Not-so-friendly competition
But this is not a particularly friendly competition. SpaceX's website brags the Falcon Heavy "can lift more than twice the payload of the next closest operational vehicle, the Delta IV Heavy, at one-third the cost."

Not so fast, says Bruno.

"Delta Heavy was really designed around the national security, primarily NRO (National Reconnaissance Office) mission set, which has complicated orbits, and it's optimized for that," he said. "It goes for about $350 million. It's a military mission only, I don't offer it commercially, at least today, there's no commercial market for a Heavy."

The Delta 4, designed by Boeing, and the Atlas 5, built by Lockheed Martin, originally were developed for the Air Force as "evolved expendable launch vehicles," or EELVs, intended to provide assured access to space for high-priority national security payloads.

With government approval, the two companies formed a partnership and the first United Launch Alliance Atlas 5, carrying a commercial satellite, blasted off in August 2002.

SpaceX launched its first Falcon 9 in 2010 and, after Air Force certification and vocal complaints about ULA's perceived monopoly in the military space arena, the California rocket builder was cleared to compete for military contracts.

"We've been competing now for almost two years in the military market space," Bruno said before last week's Air Force contracts were announced. "Falcon 9s are going for about $97 million, $96.5 million, I think, is the most recent one. They've won half, we've won half. The government discloses the winner's price because we're public procurements. So I think we each know what our prices are."

To compare the Falcon Heavy with the Delta 4, "you want to compare government missions," he said. "We don't market (the Delta 4) commercially. So I would look at the Falcon 9 at $96.5 million as a single stick. Scale that up to be a Falcon Heavy, which is a three-core version of that rocket, and whatever that price is is what I would compare to $350 million.

"If you want to take a massively large payload to LEO (low-Earth orbit), that would be the rocket that would do it. If you want to go higher, you might want to fly on a Delta 4."

But a Falcon Heavy is not made up of three Falcon 9s. It is, more accurately, one Falcon 9 with a modified central stage and two additional Falcon 9 core stages.

SpaceX has said a fully expendable version of the Falcon Heavy, one capable of boosting nearly 59,000 pounds to GTO, would cost around $150 million, less than half the cost of a Delta 4 Heavy.

But ULA says a rocket's cost is just one factor in a sale. The company also is selling reliability and "schedule certainty."

ULA has launched 76 Atlas 5 rockets and 36 more expensive Delta 4s without a single failure. SpaceX has suffered one catastrophic in-flight failure in 50 Falcon 9 launches to date and one on-the-pad explosion.

A rocket's reliability affects insurance rates and meeting a promised launch date means a commercial satellite will start generating revenue as soon as possible. ULA says both of those factors act to reduce the actual cost of a launch on one of its rockets.

Another wild card in the equation is SpaceX's plan to build an even more powerful rocket known as the BFR, for Big F-ing Rocket, intended for eventual missions to Mars. It is not yet clear where the Falcon Heavy fits into the company's long-range plans or whether the BFR will be used for the sorts of payloads ULA hopes to launch on its Vulcan.

But the Delta 4-Falcon Heavy debate will be moot soon enough as ULA phases out the Delta 4 and the Atlas 5 in favor of the Vulcan. Bruno said "at least" seven to eight more Delta 4s will be launched between now and the early 2020s while the Atlas 5 likely will fly into the mid 2020s, overlapping with the Vulcan program as the new rocket begins operational flights.

In the meantime, the Atlas 5 also will be used to launch Boeing's CST-100 commercial crew ship on flights to ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station. SpaceX also holds a NASA contract to develop a piloted version of its Dragon cargo ship that will launch atop a Falcon 9. Both companies hope to begin routine flights to the station next year.

"On the scale of inventing the airplane"
The maiden flight of the Vulcan currently is targeted for the middle of 2020. Two successful commercial launches are required as part of the government certification process, followed by a required upper stage upgrade to improve performance, either moving from two to four Centaur RL10 engines or using a different set of engines altogether.

If all goes well, ULA will introduce its new upper stage in 2024, the Advanced Cryogenic Evolved Stage, or ACES, that Bruno says will revolutionize spaceflight.

"This is on the scale of inventing the airplane," Bruno told reporters during the media roundtable. "That's how revolutionary this upper stage is. It's 1900, and I'm inventing the airplane. People don't even know what they're going to do with it yet. But I'm confident it's going to create a large economy in space that doesn't exist today. No one is working on anything like this."

The Vulcan will stand 228 feet tall with a first stage powered by two engines provided by either Blue Origin, a company owned by Amazon-founder Jeff Bezos, or Aerojet Rocketdyne. Blue Origin's BE-4 engine burns methane and liquid oxygen while Aerojet Rocketdyne's AR-1 powerplant burns a more traditional mixture of oxygen and highly refined kerosene.

Both engines will generate between 500,000 and 550,000 pounds of thrust and two will be used to power the Vulcan's first stage. Bruno said ULA is nearing a decision on which engine to employ but would not provide any sort of timetable other than to say the company would announce its choice "soon."

"They're both good engines," he told CBS News. "They both use the what we think of as a very advanced Russian engine cycle, an oxygen-rich stage combustion that the U.S. has never, ever had, and we now will. They just use two different hydrocarbon fuels as you know, one is kerosene and one is methane.

Both engines "have a lot of additive manufacturing content, which takes that Russian technology and makes it a lot more manufacturable and really updates it to modern standards. So they were both good engines. They are both, you know, hitting their marks and where they planned to be. That's probably all I can say."

Whichever engines are used, the Vulcan first stage is being designed with reusability in mind. But unlike SpaceX, which can recover it's Falcon 9 first stage intact with a rocket-powered return to landing on shore or on an off-shore droneship, ULA only plans to recover the Vulcan's first stage engines.

ULA plans to begin engine recovery operations after the Vulcan is routinely flying and after the ACES upper stage is implemented.

Bruno said the engines represent two-thirds of the cost of the stage and getting them back every time, with no impact on mission performance, will pay big dividends. SpaceX, in contrast, must use propellant to fly its Falcon 9 stages back to touchdown. Heavy payloads bound for high orbits require most if not all of the rocket's propellant and in those cases, recovery may not be possible.

As a result, SpaceX's ability to recover rocket stages depends on its manifest and the orbital demands of those payloads.

"Simplistically, if you recover the old booster propulsively then you can do that part of the time, you get all the value back some of the time," Bruno said. "Or, you can recover just the engine, which is our concept, and then you get only part of the value back, about two thirds ... but you get to do it every single time because there's no performance hit. So it really turns into math."

And that math is based on market projections about future satellite builds and the percentage of heavy-weight payloads ULA expects to be launching.

"We've made a forecast of what we think the future marketplace will be and said engine recovery is more financially attractive," Bruno said. "I think SpaceX has made different calculus. And we'll both go to the market and find out who's right."

To recover the Vulcan engines, a small pod housing an inflatable heat shield and a gas generator will be mounted on the bottom of the first stage. After boosting the rocket out of the lower atmosphere, the engines will shut down and the propulsion section will be disconnected, allowing it to fall free.

The heat shield, based on NASA technology, then will inflate using the gas generator, protecting the engines from the heat and stress of atmospheric entry. Once clear of the plasma heating region, a parafoil will deploy to fly the engines to their planned pickup point.

A large helicopter then will swoop overhead, snagging a cable to capture the engine package, which will be lowered to the deck of a nearby salvage ship. A similar technique was used to capture film canisters ejected from Corona spy satellites in the 1960s.

"We'll separate really the whole back end (of the first stage)," Bruno said. "Then, we're going to re-enter it behind the NASA inflatable heat shield and then pop a parachute, really a parafoil, because that allows us to make sure we fly to GPS coordinates and a big helicopter will be waiting for it and snag it set it down."

Recovering the engines non-propulsively will allow the Vulcan to use virtually all of its propellant to put the payload into the best possible orbit "for a pretty modest weight penalty, you know, the weight of a parachute, the weight of the subsystem," Bruno said.

For a booster, five pounds of inert weight only costs one pound of payload, he added, whereas it's pound for pound on an upper stage.

In any case, Bruno said the entry environment behind the heat shield is much more benign than what a Falcon 9 experiences with its tail-first propulsive descent and ULA engineers expect engine refurbishment to be a relatively straight forward affair.

"The engines that we're developing we think are going to be pretty easy to refurbish," Bruno said. "What we think we're going to do is get them back, inspect them, for the first few times we'll likely hot fire them to make sure we know how they're behaving. If they're behaving the way we expect, we'll probably stop doing that. We'll just clean them up, inspect them and use them."

Along with recoverable first stage engines, the Vulcan first stage features redesigned plumbing with an internal liquid oxygen feed line, freeing up real estate on the side of the rocket for a sixth strap-on solid-fuel booster.

The Vulcan will be marketed in a variety of configurations depending on payload requirements. If all six SRBs are used, liftoff thrust will be 3.8 million pounds, out performing the Delta 4.

ULA has not yet announced which company will provide the upper stage engines used for the rocket's initial flights before a planned performance upgrade. But the company expects to introduce the ACES upper stage in 2024.

Featuring up to four hydrogen-fueled rocket engines, ACES will carry three times the propellant of current ULA upper stages, will be able to operate for weeks or months at a time and will enable complex orbital operations near Earth, the moon or beyond.

The keys to its performance are ultra lightweight propellant tanks and dual "straight-six" internal combustion engines mounted on the bottom of the stage burning gaseous oxygen and hydrogen produced by the normal "boil off" of propellants in the main tanks.

The 1,000-cc engines, under development at Roush Fenway Racing, will be used to pressurize the propulsion system, push propellants to attitude control jets and generate electrical power, allowing ULA to replace multiple systems with a single solution.

"In a conventional stage, you've got to have electrical power, so you have big, long-duration batteries," Bruno said. "You have to have an attitude control system, so you have typically an entirely separate propulsion system, usually hydrazine. And then you need to pressurize your propellant, which you use (helium) to do."

Such stages typically have lifetimes measured in hours because the supercold propellants are continually boiling off into gas and batteries lose their power.

ACES solves those problems by using the internal combustion engines to accomplish all of those tasks over an extended period.

"The engine has a generator on it just like your car does so you don't need the batteries anymore," Bruno said. "And we're using the power that comes off of that internal combustion engine to run a compressor and a heat exchanger ... that's putting energy back into the gases. We pipe them back up into the tank and that pressurizes the tanks. So we don't need helium at all anymore."

Or heavy time-limited batteries.

"Each one of these (generators) throws off about 60 kilowatts," Bruno said. "We run a Centaur (stage) at about 10 watts. So now you've got 120 kilowatts of electrical power that you could use for other things."

And the same waste hydrogen and oxygen burned by the engines also can be used to power the stage's attitude control thrusters, eliminating the need for a separate propulsion system using toxic hydrazine.

"So as long as you've got all of this gaseous hydrogen and gaseous oxygen you have propellant," Bruno said. "So we've also developed (oxygen-hydrogen) thrusters and we've been testing those as well. They provide the attitude control and ... that allows us to delete the entire hydrazine system.

"So that's how it works. We've probably got, I'd say 300, 350 tests on that engine now. It's pretty cool."

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Trump praises military, calls for 'Space Force' as new branch of armed forces

President Trump praised members of the military Tuesday, saying the administration will give them the “largest pay raise in over a decade,” while touting successes around the globe, and even suggesting the creation of a new military branch — the “Space Force.”

The president spoke to thousands of military men and women at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar in San Diego, Calif., Tuesday, following his visit to review border wall prototypes.

“I have a message for you straight from the heart of the American people, and you know what that is — we support you, we love you and we will always have your back like you have ours,” Trump said, also praising military spouses and families for their service.

“For too long, the men and women of the United States Armed Forces have been asked to do more with less,” Trump said, listing “underinvestment,” deferred modernization and maintenance, old equipment and having “fewer ships than we should, fewer planes than we should, and fewer of you than we should.”

“Today I am very proud to report that all of that is changing, and as you have seen, all of that is changing quickly,” Trump said, noting that his administration sees “peace through strength.”

“I’m talking the largest military buildup since Ronald Reagan, and one of the largest buildups in the history of our nation,” Trump said, noting that the proposed military budget would be $716 billion in 2019. “We are investing in the greatest weapon, the most beautiful weapon. Our most brilliant weapon — you.”

Trump added that “in 2019 we want to give you your largest pay raise in over a decade. You deserve it. You deserve it.”

Trump also briefly mentioned his upcoming talks with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, noting “we are doing a pretty good job now with Korea.”

“Hopefully something very positive will be coming out of it,” Trump said. “We’ll see. We have to be prepared for anything. But I really believe something positive will come out of it. Will be great for Korea, North and South, and this country.”

Trump also touted the administration’s investments in weaponry, and efforts in modernizing nuclear capabilities to be “so far ahead of any other country.”

“We are finally going to lead again. Very soon, we’re going to Mars —you wouldn’t be going to Mars if my opponent won. You wouldn’t even be thinking of it,” Trump said, in a swipe at Hillary Clinton.

That's when the president went on to introduce his “new national strategy for space.”

“Space is a war-fighting domain, just like the land, air and sea,” Trump said. “We may even have a Space Force — we have the Air Force, we’ll have the Space Force, you know, the Army, the Navy.”

He added: “I said, maybe we need a new force, I was not really serious, but now I’m thinking that’s a great idea. We’re making a Space Force. Tremendous.”

The president noted that astronauts have been “soldiers and sailors,” and said that service members will be “vital” to “ensuring America continues to lead its way into the stars.”

The president pivoted from space, back to land, and applauded the coalition to defeat ISIS.

“We took off the gloves – in one year we did more damage to ISIS than the other administration — a certain other administration — did in many years,” Trump said, noting that the coalition has now “liberated almost 100%” of ISIS territory. “You did a great job, you did a great job. ISIS never thought this would happen.”

Trump also touted the administration’s investments in weaponry, and efforts in modernizing nuclear capabilities to be “so far ahead of any other country.”

“We are finally going to lead again. Very soon, we’re going to Mars —you wouldn’t be going to Mars if my opponent won. You wouldn’t even be thinking of it,” Trump said, in a swipe at Hillary Clinton.

That's when the president went on to introduce his “new national strategy for space.”

“Space is a war-fighting domain, just like the land, air and sea,” Trump said. “We may even have a Space Force — we have the Air Force, we’ll have the Space Force, you know, the Army, the Navy.”

He added: “I said, maybe we need a new force, I was not really serious, but now I’m thinking that’s a great idea. We’re making a Space Force. Tremendous.”

The president noted that astronauts have been “soldiers and sailors,” and said that service members will be “vital” to “ensuring America continues to lead its way into the stars.”

The president pivoted from space, back to land, and applauded the coalition to defeat ISIS.

“We took off the gloves – in one year we did more damage to ISIS than the other administration — a certain other administration — did in many years,” Trump said, noting that the coalition has now “liberated almost 100%” of ISIS territory. “You did a great job, you did a great job. ISIS never thought this would happen.”

Source: https://www.msn.com/en-us/news/us/trump-praises-military-calls-for-space-force-as-new-branch-of-armed-forces/ar-BBKbfT2

Monday, March 12, 2018

NASA Outlines New Lunar Science, Human Exploration Missions

NASA is focused on an ambitious plan to advance the nation’s space program by increasing science activities near and on the Moon and ultimately returning humans to the surface.

As part of the President’s fiscal year 2019 budget proposal, NASA is planning a new Moon-focused exploration campaign that starts with a series of progressive commercial robotic missions.

“The Moon will play an important role in expanding human presence deeper into the solar system,” said Bill Gerstenmaier, associate administrator of the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “Coupled with the capabilities enabled by the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway, these missions will usher in a new era of exploration of the Moon and its resources, and provide a training ground for human missions to Mars.”

Commercial Landers  

NASA plans to enlist a series of commercial robotic landers and rockets to meet lunar payload delivery and service needs. The agency will release a draft request for proposals this spring to initiate commercial lunar payload service contracts for surface delivery as early as 2019.

This solicitation, which will be open to all domestic commercial providers, complements ongoing NASA efforts to stimulate the emerging space economy. The Lunar CATALYST partnerships have already helped advance commercial capabilities to deliver small payloads to the lunar surface.

NASA is also interested in understanding and developing requirements for future human landers. By developing landers with mid-size payload capacity (500 to 1,000 kg – roughly the size of a smart car) first, this will allow evolution toward large-scale human-rated lunar landers (5,000 to 6,000 kg). Additionally, this class of lander can support larger payloads to the Moon addressing science and exploration objectives such as sample return, resource prospecting, demonstrations of in-situ resource utilization (ISRU), and others.

The agency will seek information from industry later this month for larger lander development, and determine how best to proceed with potential partnerships. NASA plans to follow that effort with a solicitation to enable the partnerships between NASA and industry. The first of two mid-size commercial missions to the Moon for NASA could come as early as 2022.

Science and Technology

The campaign – supported by science and technology projects and activities – is designed to enable seamless collaboration across NASA, leveraging agency, commercial and international partnerships toward a common goal. 

“This agency-wide strategy will inspire and enable humankind to take the next bold steps to our lunar neighbor,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters. “While American innovation will lead the way, partnerships and opportunities with U.S. industry and other nations will be expanded.”

NASA’s intrepid robotic explorers have and continue to provide vital data to support future exploration plans. The agency’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter continues to study the lunar surface from orbit, providing data needed for future robotic and human landers. Plans are underway now for an enhanced lunar sample analysis campaign to ensure data from existing Apollo samples is widely available to support future exploration. NASA also is providing ShadowCam as a U.S. contribution to the Korea Aerospace Research Institute’s first lunar exploration mission, Korea Pathfinder Lunar Orbiter (KPLO). ShadowCam will map the reflectance within the permanently shadowed regions to search for evidence of frost or ice deposits.

A new analysis of data from two lunar missions found evidence that the Moon’s water could be widely distributed across the surface rather than confined to a particular region or type of terrain. The findings could help researchers understand the origin of the Moon’s water and its feasibility and accessibility as a resource.

NASA plans to use a number of CubeSats to affordably study the lunar environment. Thirteen CubeSats will launch on Exploration Mission-1, the agency’s first integrated flight of the Space Launch System and Orion. Four of them, LunaH-Map, Lunar IceCube, Lunar Flashlight, and LunIR, will use state-of-the art instrumentation to investigate the abundance, locations, and composition of Moon resources.

Building on knowledge obtained from lunar orbit, NASA will develop new science and technology payloads, to be delivered by commercial lunar landers. The opportunity to deploy instruments directly on the lunar surface will improve our understanding of the Moon and its resources, and enable the testing of new technologies for exploration.

The Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway will serve NASA and its commercial and international partners as a uniquely valuable staging point and communications relay for exploration and science missions in deep space. The agency recently hosted a workshop to discuss how the gateway could facilitate new scientific discoveries in a variety of ways, including support to lunar sample return missions and other lunar surface science activities.

“Together, science and technology communities will continue studies of the Moon, with a focus on identifying the lunar resources important for exploration to our Earth companion and into the solar system and beyond,” said Zurbuchen.

Source: https://www.nasa.gov/feature/nasa-outlines-new-lunar-science-human-exploration-missions

SpaceX BFR Mars rocket tests may start in first half of 2019

Elon Musk, well known for his ambitious deadlines, has revealed that SpaceX may start testing its Mars rocket in the first half of next year. It’s no secret that Musk envisions a future in which humans have branched out from their Earth-bound homes, but taking humans to Mars is a mission still years away. The testing of its BFR system, however, underscores the progress SpaceX has made toward this goal in recent years.

Musk revealed the ambitious timeline during a speech at the South by South West (SXSW) festival in Texas in recent days. Though the company is still a long way off from actually sending humans to Mars, its Mars rocket tests could be less than a year away. According to Musk, starting in the first half of 2019, his private space company may start some test flights that involve going up and down.

Of course, it’s possible the company won’t hit that deadline, however Musk has made it clear that getting humans — and their technology — off Earth is vital for helping ensure its survival. During the speech, Musk made mention of a “probable” third world war, a potential reality further underscoring the need to get humans off Earth, according to BBC. Should something cataclysmic happen, humans and human technology elsewhere could help avoid another dark age.

Musk talks about multi-planetary life in the video above, though if you don’t have enough time to put aside to listen to it, the company also provides a transcript detailing Musk’s thoughts. The company also has a video (below) giving a brief overview of its Big Falcon Rocket (BFR), the same system Musk anticipates the company testing starting next year.

SpaceX has achieved multiple huge milestones, most recently — and perhaps most notably — being the successful launch of Musk’s Tesla vehicle with “Starman” passenger into space. The company has successfully developed and tested reusable rockets, as well, part of its mission to drastically decrease the cost of space travel.

15 New Exoplanets Are Discovered Including One 'Super Earth' That Could Be Habitable

There are 15 new exoplanets were discovered by a research team in Tokyo. Those 15 exoplanets were confirmed to have 3 super-Earths, of those three super-Earths one is confirmed to be in the star's habitable zone.

Chances of finding alien life in new exoplanets discovered keep increasing as more exoplanets are found that may have the right conditions.

A team from the Tokyo Institute of Technology's Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences confirmed the existence of 15 exoplanets that are orbiting red dwarf stars. K2-155 is one of the brighter red dwarfs, it is around 200 light years away from Earth.

K2-155's system includes three super-Earths, the super-Earth orbiting the furthest away from the star could be within its habitable zone. K2-155d had a radius that is 1.6 times larger than that of Earth.

Research for the study was published in The Astronomical Journal, as two papers. To study the exoplanets, researchers used data from NASA Kepler's second mission, K2 along with observations from Hawaii's Subaru Telescope and Spain's Nordic Optical Telescope.

Using the data obtained, researchers concluded that K2-155d may have the ability to have liquid water on its surface. Three-dimensional global climate simulations were used to come to the conclusion/

To determine whether K2-155 would be large and warm enough to support life more research would need to be done. Recent studies have shown that planets that are orbiting red dwarfs have similarities to solar-type of stars.

Life Near Red Dwarfs
Almost three-quarters of the stars in the galaxy are red dwarfs. Red dwarfs are between 7 and 60 percent the size of the Sun. That smaller mass means that they don't burn as hot as the Sun and emit less than 5 percent as much light as the Sun.

Discoveries of Earth-like planets has made it more interesting to guess whether there may be life on those planets. Being Earth-like doesn't guarantee that life may exist on these worlds, just that they're terrestrial and have enough mass to have an atmosphere.

Besides being the most common type of star found in the galaxy, new research shows that there is at least 1 planet for every red dwarf star. Just because a red dwarf has a planet orbiting around it doesn't mean it will have a life.

Unlike the solar-type star in Earth's solar system, habitable zones for red dwarves are much smaller. Since the habitable zone is smaller, those planets orbiting the stars are much closer meaning that they are likely tidally locked to the star. That means the only side of the planet faces the star. This change means that weather conditions on those planets could be erratic, with massive storms blowing between both halves of the planet.

Given the proximity to the star, it is also worrying that red dwarfs emit stellar flares. These flares can strip a planet's atmosphere because of how close the planets are from red dwarfs.

Conditions such as these make it more difficult to predict whether or not red dwarf systems will be able to sustain life.

Source: http://www.techtimes.com/articles/222859/20180312/15-new-exoplanets-discovered-including-one-super-earth-habitable.htm

Thursday, March 8, 2018


Confined to a wheelchair, physicist Stephen Hawking has roamed the universe in his mind. He'd like to see his fellow humans leave Earth physically—and soon.

"I believe what makes us unique is transcending our limits," Hawking said. That's why he takes part in the Breakthrough Initiatives, a suite of projects designed to help Earthlings find alien intelligence and visit the nearest neighboring solar system with a probe the size of a credit card propelled by a giant laser beam.

"How do we transcend these limits? With our minds and our machines," Hawking said. "The limit that confronts us now is the great void between us and the stars, but now we can transcend it." It's still not easy, of course, but we've now reached the point where we can at least design a system that could travel at a quarter of the speed of light, rather than the slow crawl that has limited every spacecraft built to date.

"I believe that the long-term future of the human race must be in space," Hawking said in a separate interview, with Charlie Rose. He says that humans have created their own extinction risk, and that staying on Earth is like keeping all our eggs in one basket. "Let's hope we can avoid dropping the basket until we can spread the load."

And besides, if everything goes smoothly, it could be more fun. "We are human, and our nature is to fly," Hawking said.

Source: http://www.newsweek.com/why-stephen-hawking-believes-humans-must-leave-earth-832253

Friday, February 23, 2018

Space Council acts to streamline regulations, encourage commercial missions

The newly re-activated National Space Council is acting quickly to streamline convoluted regulatory requirements that frequently slow development of new commercial space initiatives, a shift in focus in keeping with the Trump administration's directive to encourage more private sector development on the high frontier.

Chaired by Vice President Mike Pence, the space council met at the Kennedy Space Center Wednesday to review recommendations that will be sent to the president for approval, reiterating the administration's push to end government funding of the International Space Station in 2025 in favor of one or more commercially-developed follow-on outposts.

"President Trump and our entire administration believe that America's prosperity, security and even our national character depend on American leadership in space," Pence said in the cavernous room where space station components were once assembled and tested before launch.

But U.S. companies "are often stifled by a convoluted maze of bureaucratic obstacles and outdated regulatory processes," he said. "Today's launch licensing regime is plagued by burdensome government barriers."

Government launch licenses, for example, "can't be transferred from one site to another," Pence said. "So if a company receives its license to launch a rocket from the Kennedy Space Center but then wants to move their mission to California or even just a few miles away from Cape Canaveral, that same company must complete the entire process all over again."

"The government's figured out how to honor drivers licenses across state lines, there's no reason we can't do the same for rockets."

Pence arrived at the Kennedy Space Center on Tuesday, landing aboard Air Force Two at NASA's former shuttle runway.

He promptly toured a United Launch Alliance processing hangar, getting a close-up look at a Delta 4 heavy-life rocket scheduled to launch a solar probe later this year, and then visited Blue Origin's huge new rocket factory where Amazon founder Jeff Bezos plans to build a new family of orbit-class boosters.

The vice president and his wife later attended a reception with space dignitaries and executives that was closed to the news media. But Pence announced 29 nominees to serve on a space council advisory panel, including moon walker Buzz Aldrin, Eileen Collins, the first woman to command a space shuttle mission, and a variety of other luminaries from business and academia.

During Wednesday's pubic session, Jeffrey Rosen, Deputy Secretary of Transportation, outlined a 45-day plan to overhaul, modernize and streamline the space licensing framework to speed up FAA reviews, expand the use of waivers to gain quick "interim relief" and to set up a joint task force to ensure better cross-agency cooperation.

The new licensing framework is aimed at enabling a much more rapid "file-and-fly" application-to-approval process.

Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross said the space business is a $330 billion industry supporting 211,000 jobs.

"But our share of the 1,700 new companies created worldwide last year was only 45 percent, far lower than our share of launches," he said. "Private company's funded $3.9 billion of our space effort last year, but they're competing against 70 foreign governments. So they need all the support we can give them."

Since the space council's first meeting last October, a review of an "outdated regulatory framework" and "discussions with an ambitious but frustrated space industry made it clear that the rate of regulatory change must match the rate of technological change," Ross said.

"Satellite companies now face a permitting timeline that can take five years ... and provides no certainty or predictability to industry," he added. "This is unacceptable and must change. Otherwise, companies and customers will go overseas."

Ross said the Commerce Department is working to create a "new, one-stop shop for space commerce." Several offices across multiple agencies that deal with different aspects of the space industry will be consolidated in a single Commerce Department office "to coordinate all space-related functions."

Pence outlined four recommendations based on the council's work since the first meeting last October that will be sent to the president for approval.

First, the Department of Transportation will be directed to replace restrictive launch and re-entry licensing regimes with a more streamlined system by March 1, 2019. As outlined by Ross, the Commerce Department will move all space commerce responsibilities into a single office monitored directly by the secretary to facilitate mission authorization for commercial space initiatives.

Space-related export control requirements also will be streamlined, with a new framework in place by Jan. 1, 2019. And the National Telecommunications Information Administration will work to develop guidelines for protecting the radio frequency spectrum used by satellite systems to encourage expanded commercial space activities.

"These recommendations, I believe, will transform the licensing regimes that oversee launch, re-entry and new commercial space operations, and they'll empower American businesses to create the jobs of the future, attract new investment to our shores and unlock new opportunities, new technologies and new sources of American prosperity," Pence said.

"With these reforms, American private enterprise will usher in a new era of space leadership that will propel our economy, strengthen our national security and rekindle our belief that America can, and will, continue to accomplish anything we put our minds to."

But the council was warned that America's leadership in space faces major threats and challenges from Russia and China, which are both working to develop ground- and space-based anti-satellite weapons while expanding their own commercial presence in space.

Dealing with China will be particularly tricky, the council was told, given a pervasive military involvement in all aspects of the nation's space program and the ever-present threat of technology transfer.

Even so, the council was urged to find a solution that might enable private sector space cooperation.

"The United States cannot simply ignore China's commercial space ambitions," said Jeffrey Manber, president of NanoRacks Corp., a company that helps businesses and schools launch payloads to the International Space Station.

"China is quietly developing a robust commercial space industry," he said. "I say 'quietly' because Americans are barred by our own regulations and our own mindset from participation in this marketplace."

But avoiding direct cooperation with China, "albeit with justified concerns over technology transfer and other legitimate issues, is not the American global leadership that we all strive to achieve," Manber said. "I urge us to negotiate a stern but fair agreement with China and allow U.S. businesses to do what we do best, and that is to innovate and compete better than anyone else."

Source: https://www.cbsnews.com/news/space-council-acts-to-streamline-regulatory-process/