Friday, December 8, 2017

Elon Musk dares the CEO of Boeing to race SpaceX to Mars

Whether it’s DC Comics versus Marvel, Nike versus Reebok, or Apple versus Microsoft, there is nothing like some friendly competition to raise the stakes — and spark a bit of crazy innovation in the process. Now we have our latest standoff to add to the collection: SpaceX founder Elon Musk versus Boeing. What’s at stake? Being able to lay claim to getting the first human to Mars, apparently.

The first shots were fired Thursday, December 7, when CNBC host Jim Cramer quizzed Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg over whether the established giant would be able to beat SpaceX. “We’re working on that next generation rocket right now with our NASA customers called ‘Space Launch System,’” Muilenburg said. “This is a rocket that’s about 36 stories tall. We’re in the final assembly right now, down near New Orleans, and we’re going to take a first test flight in 2019. And we’re going to do a slingshot mission around the moon.”

He added that, “Eventually we’re going to go to Mars and I firmly believe the first person that sets foot on Mars will get there on a Boeing rocket.” This is the second time Muilenburg suggested a similar triumph for Boeing, having previously said at a 2016 conference in Chicago that, “I’m convinced that the first person to step foot on Mars will arrive there riding on a Boeing rocket.”

Like waving a red rag to a Tesla Model 3, the statement quickly provoked Musk to respond on Twitter with the two words that may as well sum up his career: “Do it.”

OK, so on some level, this is Twitter drama, which usually peters out after a few hashtags and several retweets. But we’re talking about a man who was told his plan to take on the giants with an electric car was madness, but still succeeded; who has figured out how to land a rocket vertically; who is drilling giant tunnels underground for high-speed transportation; and — most importantly — who has been constantly talking up Space X’s rocket, which he plans to use to transport humans to Mars.

This is one wager we’re excited to see the outcome to. Whoever wins is going to be in line for some serious bragging rights.


Saturday, November 18, 2017

Richard Branson’s newest space venture just got hired by the Pentagon for a test launch

The Pentagon is hiring Richard Branson to launch satellites to orbit.

His Virgin Orbit space company announced Thursday it had won its first military contract: a demonstration flight that would carry “technology demonstration satellites” for the Air Force on its LauncherOne rocket by early 2019.

For years, Branson’s Virgin Galactic has been focused on flying tourists to the edge of space where they’d experience a few minutes of weightlessness and glimpse the Earth from a distance for $250,000 a ticket.

But recently, his space venture has moved in another direction — launching small satellites, a market that many think could be large and lucrative as satellite technology continues to improve. To meet the demand, Branson founded Virgin Orbit, which would fly commercial satellites that would beam the Internet to remote parts of the world. On Thursday, the company announced the formation of a subsidiary, Vox Space, which will be dedicated to launching payloads for the Pentagon and intelligence community.

The contract comes as the military is increasingly looking for inexpensive and rapid access to space. Traditionally, launches of military satellites were a cumbersome and costly endeavor, costing tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars. For a decade, there was a sole provider of Pentagon launch services, the United Launch Alliance, until Elon Musk’s SpaceX fought its way into the market.

But as satellites have gotten smaller, the Pentagon is looking to other companies to develop the technology to fly them quickly and affordably.

Earlier this week, Fred Kennedy, the director of the Tactical Technology Office at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, said that the military is “in dire need of new thinking and innovation,” and added that “our savior” would be the growing commercial sector.

In an interview, Virgin Orbit's chief executive Dan Hart said, “we think that this is a real concrete indication of the government’s drive to use commercial space, and the agility and affordability that we can provide.”

To meet the demand, several small launch companies have taken off in recent years. DARPA is backing a Boeing effort to build a spaceplane that, if successful, would operate like a commercial airliner, capable of launching daily.

Rocket Lab has also developed a small rocket called Electron that is scheduled to launch for a second test flight in New Zealand soon. A company called Vector, which was started by a couple of SpaceX alumni, also has a small launch vehicle that it says would eventually launch daily.

Earlier this year, Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson visited Stratolaunch, the company founded by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, which is building what would be the world’s largest airplane. The plane is so big that it’d be able to fly three rockets to altitude, release them so that they could then launch off into orbit.

Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne rocket would also be “air launched” from an airplane, a 747 it calls “Cosmic Girl.”

Virgin Orbit is already scheduled to fly satellites for OneWeb, a Branson-backed company that intends to put up a constellation of satellites beaming the Internet from space.

While the Pentagon may not provide as much business as commercial satellite manufacturers, Hart said that “there's been a constant, steady message that the DOD needs to become more agile, more affordable, drive innovation and pull it from the commercial industry. And we see ourselves perfectly positioned with all those.”

Russian project to build moon orbiter estimated at over $33.5 million

The orbiter is to be manufactured until February 29, 2020

MOSCOW, November 17. /TASS/. The project to build the Luna-Resurs lunar orbiter, to be implemented by 2020, is estimated at almost 2 billion rubles (over $33.5 million at the current exchange rate), according to information published by the official government procurement website.

"The initial (maximum) price of the contract is 1.995 billion rubles," reads a federal procurement document.

According to the website, the project will be financed from the federal government. The main contractor, the NPO Lavochkin aerospace company, will receive an advance payment of almost 1.6 billion rubles, or 80% of the contract’s total value.

The orbiter is to be manufactured until February 29, 2020. Its weight should not exceed 2,200 kilograms.

The last Soviet lunar mission was sent in 1976 when the Luna-24 probe made a soft landing, collected soil samples and returned them to the Earth.

According to earlier reports, the lunar project is expected to resume in 2019, when the Luna-25 (formerly known as Luna-Glob) automated probe will be sent to explore the Moon’s South Pole. The module is expected to land in the Boguslavsky crater.

At the next stage, Russia will launch the Luna-Resurs (Luna-26) orbital spacecraft, which will operate in the near-Moon circular polar orbit at an altitude of 200 km for about twelve months. The spacecraft will be gathering and transmitting information to the Earth from the landing station. It will also help carry out research using equipment for the Moon’s remote exploration.

After that, a lander with a cryogenic in-depth drilling rig will be dispatched to the Moon’s South Pole. It will be outfitted with a system capable of considerably increasing the landing accuracy to 3 km.

The fourth stage of the lunar program plans to send a Luna-Grunt (Moon-Soil) automated space station. It will feature a soil-sampling vehicle and means for sampling and thermostatting (the conservation of soil samples for their delivery to the Earth in their original form) of soil samples and the system for sample delivery to the Earth for further research.


NASA's New James Webb Space Telescope Just Got Its 1st Science Targets

NASA's next-generation large-scale space observatory, the James Webb Space Telescope, is set to train its eyes on the cosmos in 2019. This week, organizers revealed some of the first cosmic objects that the telescope will study.

The Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI), which manages the Webb program, announced Monday (Nov. 13) that it had selected 13 proposals for the initial round of science observations. The programs will demonstrate the Webb telescope's wide-ranging capabilities; the selected programs include observations of Jupiter, studies of remote alien planets, an examination of extremely distant galaxies, and other cosmic duties.

"I'm thrilled to see the list of astronomers' most fascinating targets for the Webb telescope, and extremely eager to see the results," John C. Mather, senior project scientist for Webb and senior astrophysicist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, said in a statement from NASA. "We fully expect to be surprised by what we find.

The 13 science programs are part of what's known as the JWST Director's Discretionary Early Release Science Program (DD-ERS). The data from these observing campaigns will be immediately released to the scientific community "so they have the opportunity to analyze the data and plan follow-up observations," according to the statement from NASA. 

The 13 programs will be conducted within the first five months of Webb's science operations; the telescope has a minimum scientific lifetime of five years.

"We want the research community to be as scientifically productive as possible, as early as possible, which is why I am so pleased to be able to dedicate nearly 500 hours of director's discretionary time to these ERS observations," Ken Sembach, director of STScI, said in the statement. 

The 13 programs "represent participation by 253 investigators from 18 countries, 22 U.S. states, and 106 unique institutions … There are an additional 449 science collaborators involved in the programs," according to the statement.

Science programs

One of the accepted science proposals will focus Webb's instruments on Jupiter. The observations will "characterize Jupiter's cloud layers, winds, composition, auroral activity and temperature structure," according to the proposal. The observations could also produce maps of the atmosphere and surface of two of Jupiter's moons, Io and Ganymede. In addition, they could search for plumes on those satellites like those observed on Jupiter's moon Europa.

"Our program will thus demonstrate the capabilities of JWST's instruments on one of the largest and brightest sources in the Solar System and on very faint targets next to it," according to the proposal. 

Two of the accepted proposals will train Webb's instrument on planets in other solar systems. One of those proposals will take advantage of Webb's ability to directly image exoplanets — something very few telescopes have high enough resolution to achieve. Another accepted proposal aims to develop scientists' ability to use Webb to study the atmosphere of exoplanets.That is done by watching the planet transit in front of its parent star, and then capturing the starlight that passes through the planet's atmosphere. This light picks up information about the chemical composition of those gases. 

"JWST presents the opportunity to transform our understanding of planets and the origins of life by revealing the atmospheric compositions, structures, and dynamics of transiting exoplanets in unprecedented detail," according to the proposal. "However, the high-precision, time-series observations required for such investigations have unique technical challenges, and our prior experience with HST, Spitzer, and Kepler indicates that there will be a steep learning curve when JWST becomes operational."

A representative from STScI said organizers have not yet confirmed which exoplanets Webb will focus on for these studies, because the exact launch date for Webb has not been determined (it is currently set for spring 2019). A change in the launch timeframe would subsequently change which part of the sky Webb will be observing in its first five months. But initially, the study of exoplanet atmospheres will involve large, gaseous planets like Jupiter, because they are "easier targets on which to apply this technique," according to NASA. 

"The results will help guide observing strategies for smaller, mostly rocky and more Earth-like super-Earths, where atmospheric composition may give hints of a planet's potential habitability," officials said in the statement. 

Finally, a fourth proposal will train Webb's instruments on some incredibly distant galaxies. For this science observation project, Webb will study regions of the sky "already examined by [the Hubble Space Telescope's] Frontier Fields program, such as the galaxy cluster MACS J0717.5+3745. Webb data will complement Hubble's, giving astronomers new insights into these cornucopias of galaxies," according to the statement from NASA.

Galaxy clusters are a helpful tool in astrophysics because their incredible mass can bend and magnify light from objects that lie beyond them, as seen by an observer on Earth. That means researchers can use this gravitational effect (called gravitational lensing) to see extremely distant galaxies. Those observations can reveal new information about how early galaxies formed and how they differ from modern galaxies. According to one of the accepted proposals, these studies may also reveal new information about the history of the very early universe, including the epoch of reionization, or the end of the "dark ages" in the early universe. 

Eventually, Webb will be able to spot even more distant galaxies and galaxy clusters than Hubble was capable of seeing. Because the universe is expanding, the light from distant galaxies gets stretched out as it travels toward Earth; this changes the wavelength of light from those galaxies, stretching visible light into the infrared range. Webb was designed specifically to capture light in this range, to allow scientists to study those distant galaxies. 

"These observing programs not only will generate great science, but also will be a unique resource for demonstrating the investigative capabilities of this extraordinary observatory to the worldwide scientific community," Sembach said in the statement. 

China sets out long-term space transportation roadmap including a nuclear space shuttle

The main contractor for the Chinese space programme has set out a space transportation roadmap which could massively boost capabilities and reduce costs for access to space.

The China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC) roadmap sets out a string of ambitious targets related to space technology, space science and space applications from 2017 to 2045.

By 2020 CASC will have a wide range of launch capabilities through its expendable Long March rocket families, with the low-cost Long March 8 rocket to be in action by this time, adding to the new capabilities of the Long March 5 and 7.

2025 is the marker for the successful development of a reusable space plane, initially using two stages for suborbital flight, including for tourism purposes. The debut flight for the space plane has earlier been stated as being set for 2020. Eventually the spacecraft would use combined cycle propulsion for orbital flight.

The first super heavy-lift launch vehicles, referred to as the Long March 9, will make their maiden flights by 2030, with a payload capacity of over 100 tonnes. The Saturn V-class launcher will be capable of a Mars sample return and crewed lunar missions.

To this end Long Lehao, chief designer of the Long March rocket series, told state media that progress has been made on forging 10-metre-diameter stages and 500-tonne thrust kerosene-liquid oxygen and 220-tonne thrust hydrolox engines.

Reusability, nuclear powered shuttle

Following this, CASC has set 2035 as the target for full reusability for its launch vehicles, following the trails being blazed by US companies SpaceX and Blue Origin.

By 2040, a next generation of launch vehicles will be put into operation, capable of multiple interplanetary round-trips, exploiting space resources through asteroid mining and constructing megaprojects such as a space-based solar power station.

Another target explicitly mentioned for 2040 is a nuclear-powered space shuttle, though no details are revealed.

By 2045 these developments, if achieved, will position China as the world leader in aerospace, according to Lu Yu, a senior official with CASC.

The roadmap appeared in Chinese media today, coinciding with the founding of the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (CALT), a CASC subsidiary, 60 years ago.

Breakthrough Prize Foundation studying privately-funded Enceladus mission

LUXEMBOURG CITY — The Breakthrough Prize Foundation, the organization funded by Russian billionaire Yuri Milner, is examining the feasibility of a private mission to a moon of Saturn.

The effort, still in its early study phases, could eventually lead to a mission to the moon Enceladus. That icy moon likely has an ocean of liquid water underneath its surface, based in part on plumes emanating from its surface as seen by NASA’s Cassini mission. That has raised its prospects as a potentially habitable world.

Milner first revealed his foundation was considering such a mission during an on-stage interview at a conference in Seattle Nov. 9 organized by The Economist magazine. “We formed a little workshop around this idea,” he said. “Can we design a low-cost privately-funded mission to Enceladus, which can be launched relatively soon and that can look more thoroughly at those plumes to try to see what’s going on there?”

Such a mission, he said, would be a precursor to a possible future NASA mission that would be more sophisticated, but also more expensive and take longer to develop. Enceladus is one of the potential destinations for the next New Frontiers medium-class planetary science mission, the competition for which is ongoing.

Milner said that all options were being considered, from a simply flyby of Enceladus to a spacecraft that might enter orbit around Saturn and make multiple flybys of the moon. “How can we, for the first time ever, design and send, and launch actually, a privately-funded interplanetary science mission?” He did not disclose additional details about the concept at that event.

Pete Worden, the former director of NASA’s Ames Research Center who is now chairman of Milner’s Breakthrough Prize Foundation, mentioned the study effort during a Nov. 16 talk at the NewSpace Europe conference here.

“We did an initial study,” he said. “We met with our sponsor, Mr. Milner, in August and said we could probably do it, using more conventional means, for a few hundred million dollars.”

Milner, Worden recalled, considered that too expensive. “So he sent us back to look at interesting lower-cost efforts, and we found a few,” he said. He didn’t discuss those alternatives in detail, but suggested some involved solar sails or “light sails” of some kind.

“We’ll probably kick off, around the first of the year, a six-month study to look at some of these” alternative mission concepts, he said. “Hopefully, later this next year, if it looks good, we’ll be off and running.”

He added that mission, if approved and funded by Milner, could be done in cooperation with space agencies, adding that both NASA and the European Space Agency had been briefed on the concept.

NASA is currently evaluating the dozen proposals submitted in April for what would be the fourth New Frontiers mission. At least two of the proposed missions would go to Enceladus. Jim Green, director of NASA’s planetary science division, said at a Nov. 14 meeting of the Venus Exploration and Analysis Group that the evaluation was “proceeding very nicely” with plans to select three or so proposals by the end of the year for additional study. NASA would make a final selection in the spring of 2019 for launch by 2025.

It wasn’t clear, based on Milner’s and Worden’s comments, whether a NASA selection of an Enceladus mission would be a prerequisite for going ahead with a privately-funded mission intended as a precursor.

The Enceladus mission studies are the latest project by the Breakthrough Prize Foundation. In addition to its namesake prizes in fundamental physics, life sciences and mathematics, the foundation has backed several initiatives focused more on the search for life beyond the solar system.

Breakthrough Listen, announced in 2015, will spend $100 million over 10 years to fund projects associated with the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI), such as paying for telescope time at several radio observatories. Breakthrough Starshot, announced in 2016, is another $100 million, 10-year effort, this time to study technologies that could be used for laser-propelled light sails that could send chip-sized spacecraft to nearby star systems.

Milner, who became wealthy through investments in technology companies, including Facebook and Twitter, has faced more scrutiny about those investments recently. An investigation by the New York Times published earlier this month found that some of the funds he received to invest in those and other companies came from firms with ties to the Russian government.

Milner, asked about this at the Seattle event, noted the Russian funding came in 2009, when relations between the United States and Russia were in better condition, and that he returned the funds in 2014. He added he has tried to stay out of politics throughout his life. “People who know me well,” he said, “know that my real passion is technology, science and space.”


Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Earth-like planet that could host alien life has been discovered and it’s called Ross

A planet the same size as Earth and with a similar temperature has been discovered.

Ross 128b was found orbiting a red dwarf 11 light years away from our own planet and is moving closer to us.

Scientists say its surface temperature may be ‘the closest known comfortable abode for possible life’.

Astronomers working with the European Southern Observatory’s High Accuracy Radial velocity Planet Searcher (HARPS) at the La Silla Observatory in Chile found that the red dwarf star Ross 128 is orbited by a low-mass ‘exoplanet’ every 9.9 days.

The Earth-sized world is expected to be temperate, with a surface temperature that may also be close to that of the Earth. Ross 128 is the ‘quietest’ nearby star to host such a temperate exoplanet.

Study co-author, Dr Nicola Astudillo-Defru, of the University of Geneva in Switzerland, said: ‘This discovery is based on more than a decade of HARPS intensive monitoring together with state-of-the-art data reduction and analysis techniques.

‘Only HARPS has demonstrated such a precision and it remains the best planet hunter of its kind, 15 years after it began operations.’