Saturday, May 31, 2014

SpaceX unveils Dragon V2, an upgraded capsule to uplift astronauts to space - Video

The interior of SpaceX's new seven-seat Dragon V2 spacecraft, the company’s next generation version of the Dragon ship designed to carry astronauts into space, as seen at a press conference in Hawthorne, California, on May 29, 2014

A sleek, white gumdrop-shaped space capsule that aims to carry up to seven astronauts to the International Space Station and return to land anywhere on Earth was unveiled Thursday by SpaceX.

The Dragon V2, short for version two, is the first attempt by a private company to restore Americans' ability to send people to the orbiting space station in the wake of the space shuttle program's retirement in 2011.

"It's all around, I think, really a big leap forward in technology. It really takes things to the next level," said SpaceX CEO Elon Musk.

SpaceX is competing with other companies, including Boeing, Sierra Nevada and Blue Origin, to be the first commercial outfit to take astronauts to space, possibly as early as 2017.

Until then, the world's astronauts must rely on Russian Soyuz spacecraft at a cost of $70 million per seat.

The Dragon V2 was shown for the first time at a jam-packed evening press conference in Hawthorne, California.

The shiny Dragon V2 sat on a white stage floor, as a scorched Dragon cargo capsule was suspended above, bearing the blackened markings of a capsule that had returned to Earth from orbit.

SpaceX's Dragon capsule in 2012 became the first private spacecraft to carry supplies to the ISS and back.

Since then, Orbital Sciences has followed with its Cygnus, a capsule shaped like a beer keg that can carry supplies to the space station but burns upon re-entry to Earth's atmosphere.

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk introduces SpaceX's Dragon V2 spacecraft, the company's next generation version of the Dragon ship, designed to carry astronauts into space, at a press conference in Hawthorne, California, on May 29, 2014

Musk said a key feature of the Dragon V2 is that it will be able to "land anywhere on Earth with the accuracy of a helicopter."

The crew spacecraft will be able to use rocket propulsion and deploy legs to land, instead of using parachutes to make an ocean splash-landing the way the cargo capsule does.

It will however still have parachutes that it can use for a landing in case any engine problems are detected before touchdown on Earth.

The V2 also carries an improved heat shield and will be able to autonomously dock with the space station, instead of needing the space station's robotic arm to catch it and pull it in.

"That is a significant upgrade as well," Musk said.

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk introduces SpaceX's Dragon V2 spacecraft, the company's next generation version of the Dragon ship designed to carry astronauts into space, at a press conference in Hawthorne, California, on May 29, 2014

Musk touted the reusability of the Dragon V2, allowing it to cut back on expensive space journeys.

"You can just reload propellant and then fly again. This is extremely important for revolutionizing access to space," Musk said.

"Because as long as we continue to throw away rockets and spacecraft, we will never have true access to space. It will always be incredibly expensive," he added.

"If aircraft were thrown away with each flight, nobody would be able to fly."

The Internet entrepreneur and billionaire co-founder of PayPal did not say when the Dragon V2's first test flight would take place.

Chandra Sagittarius A*: Black holes at centre of galaxies are wormholes

Credit: X-ray: NASA /UMass /D.Wang et al., IR: NASA/STScI

Zilong Li and Cosimo Bambi with Fudan University in Shanghai have come up with a very novel idea, those black holes that are believed to exist at the center of a lot of galaxies, may instead by wormholes.

They've written a paper, uploaded to the preprint server arXiv, describing their idea and how what they've imagined could be proved right (or wrong) by a new instrument soon to be added to an observatory in Chile.

Sagittarius A*: NASA's Chandra Finds Milky Way's Black Hole may be Grazing on Asteroids

Back in 1974, space scientists discovered Sagittarius A* (SgrA ∗), a bright source of radio waves emanating from what appeared to be near the center of the Milky Way galaxy.

Subsequent study of the object led scientists to believe that it was (and is) a black hole, the behaviour of stars nearby, for example, suggested it was something massive and extremely dense.

What we're able to see when we look at SgrA ∗ are plasma gasses near the event horizon, not the object itself as light cannot escape.

That should be true for wormholes too, of course, which have also been theorized to exist by the Theory of General Relativity. Einstein even noted the possibility of their existence.

GRAVITY overview. The beam combiner instrument (bottom right) is located in the VLTI laboratory. 

The infrared wavefront-sensors (bottom left) are mounted to each of the four UTs. 

The laser metrology is launched from the beam-combiner and is detected at each UT/AT (top middle).

Unfortunately, no one has ever come close to proving the existence of wormholes, which are believed to be channels between different parts of the universe, or even between two universes in multi-universe theories.

In their paper, Li and Bambi suggest that there is compelling evidence suggesting that many of the objects we believe to be black holes at the center of galaxies, may in fact be wormholes.

Plasma gases orbiting a black hole versus a wormhole should look different to us, the pair suggest, because wormholes should be a lot smaller.

Plus, the presence of wormholes would help explain how it is that even new galaxies have what are now believed to be black holes, such large black holes would presumably take a long time to become so large, so how can they exist in a new galaxy?

They can't Li and Bambi conclude, instead those objects are actually wormholes, which theory suggests could spring up in an instant, and would have, following the Big Bang.

Making the two's speculation more exciting is the soon to be installed piece of equipment known as GRAVITY, it will be added to the European Space Observatory (ESO) in Chile, giving researchers there an unprecedented view of SgrA ∗ (and other black holes).

In just a couple of years, it should be possible to prove whether Li and Bambi's idea is correct or not, the photon capture sphere of the wormhole should be much smaller than that for a black hole, they note, if that's the case with SgrA ∗, space scientists will have to do some serious rethinking of wormholes and how they might fit in to current theories describing the universe.

More information: Distinguishing black holes and wormholes with orbiting hot spots, arXiv:1405.1883

Elliptical galaxies: Chandra helps explain 'red and dead galaxies'

Credit: X-ray: NASA /Chandra CXC /Stanford Univ /N.Werner et al.

NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory has shed new light on the mystery of why giant elliptical galaxies have few, if any, young stars.

This new evidence highlights the important role that supermassive black holes play in the evolution of their host galaxies.

Because star-forming activity in many giant elliptical galaxies has shut down to very low levels, these galaxies mostly house long-lived stars with low masses and red optical colours.

Astronomers have therefore called these galaxies "red and dead."

Previously it was thought that these red and dead galaxies do not contain large amounts of cold gas—the fuel for star formation, helping to explain the lack of young stars.

ESA's Herschel Space Observatory
However, astronomers have used ESA's Herschel Space Observatory to find surprisingly large amounts of cold gas in some giant elliptical galaxies.

In a sample of eight galaxies, six contain large reservoirs of cold gas.

This is the first time that astronomers have seen large quantities of cold gas in giant elliptical galaxies that are not located at the center of a massive galaxy cluster.

With lots of cold gas, astronomers would expect many stars to be forming in these galaxies, contrary to what is observed.

To try to understand this inconsistency, astronomers studied the galaxies at other wavelengths, including X-rays and radio waves.

The Chandra observations map the temperature and density of hot gas in these galaxies.

For the six galaxies containing abundant cold gas, including NGC 4636 and NGC 5044 shown here, the X-ray data provide evidence that the hot gas is cooling, providing a source for the cold gas observed with Herschel.

However, the cooling process stops before the cold gas condenses to form stars. What prevents the stars from forming?

A strong clue comes from the Chandra images. The hot gas in the center of the six galaxies containing cold gas appears to be much more disturbed than in the cold gas-free systems.

This is a sign that material has been ejected from regions close to the central black hole. These outbursts are possibly driven, in part, by clumpy, cold gas that has been pulled onto the black hole.

The outbursts dump most of their energy into the center of the galaxy, where the cold gas is located, preventing the cold gas from cooling sufficiently to form stars.

The other galaxies in the sample, NGC 1399 and NGC 4472, are also forming few if any stars, but they have a very different appearance. No cold gas was detected in these galaxies, and the hot gas in their central regions is much smoother.

Additionally, they have powerful jets of highly energetic particles, as shown in radio images from the National Science Foundation's Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array.

These jets are likely driven by hot gas falling towards the central supermassive black holes.

By pushing against the hot gas, the jets create enormous cavities that are observed in the Chandra images, and they may heat the hot, X-ray emitting gas, preventing it from cooling and forming cold gas and stars.

The centers of NGC 1399 and NGC 4472 look smoother in X-rays than the other galaxies, likely because their more powerful jets produce cavities further away from the center, where the X-ray emission is fainter, leaving their bright cores undisturbed.

More information: A paper describing these results was published on 24 February 2014 in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society: , Preprint:

NASA's IRIS: Observing a gigantic CME eruption of solar material

A coronal mass ejection, or CME, surged off the side of the sun on May 9, 2014, and NASA's newest solar observatory caught it in extraordinary detail. 

This was the first CME observed by the Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph (IRIS), which launched in June 2013 to peer into the lowest levels of the sun's atmosphere with better resolution than ever before. 

IRIS must commit to pointing at certain areas of the sun at least a day in advance, so catching a CME in the act involves some educated guesses and a little bit of luck.

"We focus in on active regions to try to see a flare or a CME," said Bart De Pontieu, the IRIS science lead at Lockheed Martin Solar & Astrophysics Laboratory in Palo Alto, California. "And then we wait and hope that we'll catch something. This is the first clear CME for IRIS so the team is very excited."

The IRIS imagery focuses in on material of 30,000 kelvins at the base, or foot points, of the CME.

The line moving across the middle of the movie is the entrance slit for IRIS's spectrograph, an instrument that can split light into its many wavelengths, a technique that ultimately allows scientists to measure temperature, velocity and density of the solar material behind the slit.

The field of view for this imagery is about five Earths wide and about seven-and-a-half Earths tall.

Watch the movie to see how a curtain of solar material erupts outward at speeds of 1.5 million miles per hour.

A coronal mass ejection burst off the side of the sun on May 9, 2014. The giant sheet of solar material erupting was the first CME seen by NASA's Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph (IRIS). 

The field of view seen here is about five Earths wide and about seven-and-a-half Earths tall. Credit: NASA/LMSAL/IRIS/SDO/Goddard

NASA/JAXA GPM: precipitation satellite passes check-out, starts mission

The GPM Core Observatory collects precipitation information that unifies data from an international network of existing and future satellites to map global rainfall and snowfall every three hours. 

Credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center/Debbie McCallum

The new Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) Core Observatory satellite is now in the hands of the engineers who will fly the spacecraft and ensure the steady flow of data on rain and snow for the life of the mission.

The official handover to the Earth Science Mission Operations team at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, on May 29, marked the end of a successful check-out period.

The Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) mission is a joint mission between NASA and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA).

Its GPM Core Observatory launched on Feb. 27, 2014, from Tanegashima Space Center in Japan.

The satellite's two science instruments collect observations of rainfall and snowfall worldwide. Since launch, the satellite has gone through a thorough check-out of all its systems and reached its final orbit of 253 miles (407 kilometers) above Earth's surface.

"Commissioning has gone very well," said Mission Systems Engineer David Ward of NASA Goddard at GPM's Post-Launch Acceptance Review on May 15. "The issues that have occurred have been relatively minor. We're in very good shape."

The check-out period is like taking a new car out on a road trip – the engineers in the driver's seat learn how it handles and make adjustments to find the "sweet spots" for smooth flying and data collection.

In the first weeks after launch the Flight Operations Team at Goddard, supported by the engineers who built the spacecraft, turned on spacecraft systems and ran them through normal procedures.

On May 29, GPM Deputy Project Manager Candace Carlisle (left) handed over the 'key' to the GPM Core Observatory to GPM Mission Director James Pawloski (center, blue shirt). 

Also pictured, left to right, Wynn Watson, Art Azarbarzin, Gail Skofronick-Jackson and David Ward. 

Credit: NASA

The team turned on both science instruments a few days after launch: the GPM Microwave Imager on March 1, and the Dual-frequency Precipitation Radar on March 2.

Two weeks after launch, both instruments were collecting data and the team had begun calibration procedures to ensure that the data returned is as accurate as possible.

"We're doing really well," said Erich Stocker, GPM deputy project scientist and project manager for the Precipitation Processing System at Goddard, which handles data for GPM and its predecessor satellite, the Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission (TRMM).

"GMI is the best calibrated radiometer out of the box that we've ever had. And DPR is well-calibrated for this stage," he said, noting that the instrument can pick up weather elements, like classic thunderstorm anvil-shaped clouds, which TRMM could not.

A series of propulsion burns in March and early April took the Core Observatory into its final orbit at 253 miles.

At that altitude, however, drag is still a problem – a very thin layer of atmosphere still exists, which can slow down a quickly moving satellite with two extended solar arrays.

In low Earth orbit, slowing down means losing altitude. To counteract the drag, the thrusters had a planned burn every week to maintain speed and altitude.

After evaluating how well the solar arrays were collecting power – very well – the flight team made minute adjustments to the angle of the arrays to reduce drag, reducing the need for altitude maintenance burns to every other week.

Project "Brainflight" gets off the ground: Flight Simulation Video

Simulating brain controlled flying at the Institute for Flight System Dynamics. 

Video and Images courtesy A. Heddergott and TU Munchen.

Pilots of the future could be able to control their aircraft by merely thinking commands. Scientists of the Technische Universitat (TU) Munchen and the TU Berlin have now demonstrated the feasibility of flying via brain control - with astonishing accuracy.

The pilot is wearing a white cap with myriad attached cables.

His gaze is concentrated on the runway ahead of him. All of a sudden the control stick starts to move, as if by magic. The airplane banks and then approaches straight on towards the runway.

The position of the plane is corrected time and again until the landing gear gently touches down. During the entire maneuver the pilot touches neither pedals nor controls.

This is not a scene from a science fiction movie, but rather the rendition of a test at the Institute for Flight System Dynamics of the Technische Universitat (TU) Munchen.

Scientists working for Professor Florian Holzapfel are researching ways in which brain controlled flight might work in the EU-funded project "Brainflight."

"A long-term vision of the project is to make flying accessible to more people," explains aerospace engineer Tim Fricke, who heads the project at TUM.

"With brain control, flying, in itself, could become easier. This would reduce the work load of pilots and thereby increase safety. In addition, pilots would have more freedom of movement to manage other manual tasks in the cockpit."

Tim Fricke
Surprising accuracy
The scientists have logged their first breakthrough: They succeeded in demonstrating that brain-controlled flight is indeed possible - with amazing precision. Seven subjects took part in the flight simulator tests.

They had varying levels of flight experience, including one person without any practical cockpit experience whatsoever.

The accuracy with which the test subjects stayed on course by merely thinking commands would have sufficed, in part, to fulfill the requirements of a flying license test.

"One of the subjects was able to follow eight out of ten target headings with a deviation of only 10 degrees," reports Fricke.

Several of the subjects also managed the landing approach under poor visibility. One test pilot even landed within only few meters of the centerline.

The TU Munchen scientists are now focusing in particular on the question of how the requirements for the control system and flight dynamics need to be altered to accommodate the new control method.

Normally, pilots feel resistance in steering and must exert significant force when the loads induced on the aircraft become too large. This feedback is missing when using brain control.

The researchers are thus looking for alternative methods of feedback to signal when the envelope is pushed too hard, for example.

Electrical potentials are converted into control commands.
For humans and machines to communicate, brain waves of the pilots are measured using electroencephalography (EEG) electrodes connected to a cap. An algorithm developed by scientists from Team PhyPA (Physiological Parameters for Adaptation) of the Technische Universitat TU Berlin allows the program to decipher electrical potentials and convert them into useful control commands.

Only the very clearly defined electrical brain impulses required for control are recognized by the brain-computer interface. "This is pure signal processing," emphasizes Fricke. Mind reading is not possible.

More Information: The researchers will present their results end of September at the "Deutscher Luft- und Raumfahrtkongress," among other places.

The work presented has received funding from the European Union Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007-2013) under grant agreement n° 308914.

The project "Brainflight" is a partnership between TEKEVER (Project Coordinator - Portugal), Champalimaud Foundation (Portugal), Eagle Science (Netherlands) and Technische Universitat (TU) Munchen (Germany).

Friday, May 30, 2014

Star Trek-style 'tractor beam' created at Scottish university

Scientists at Dundee University have created a working "tractor beam".

Normally the stuff of science fiction in Star Trek or Star Wars, physicists at the university used an ultrasound array to exert force on an object and pull it towards the energy source.

They say it is the first time such a beam has been used to move anything bigger than microscopic targets.

The technology could be put to use in medicine, helping to develop ultrasound-based clinical techniques.

Dundee researchers worked alongside colleagues in Southampton and Illinois on the project, the results of which have been published in the scientific journal Physical Review Letters.

In another sci-fi inspired project, the same team from the university's Institute for Medical Science and Technology (Imsat) created a Doctor Who-style "sonic screwdriver", also using ultrasound.

Ultrasound device
"This is the first time anyone has demonstrated a working acoustic tractor beam and the first time such a beam has been used to move anything bigger than microscopic targets," said Dr Christine Demore of Imsat.

"We were able to show that you could exert sufficient force on an object around one centimetre in size to hold or move it, by directing twin beams of energy from the ultrasound array towards the back of the object."

The team used an ultrasound device that is already clinically approved for use in MRI-guided surgery.

The team's work was carried out as part of a £3.6m programme initiated by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, combining expertise at four UK universities in Bristol, Dundee, Glasgow and Southampton with industrial firms.

Professor Sandy Cochran, of the University of Dundee, said: "Our partnership with industry has been vital to developing devices and capabilities that are delivering unprecedented sophistication in the field of ultrasound."

Morpheus Prototype Uses Hazard Detection System to Land Safely in Night Test - Video

Image Credit: NASA/Mike Chambers

NASA demonstrated that it can land an unmanned spacecraft on a rugged planetary surface in the pitch dark in a May 28, 2014 free-flight test of the Morpheus prototype lander and Autonomous Landing Hazard Avoidance Technology (ALHAT).

The 98-second test began at 10:02 p.m. EDT, with the Morpheus lander launching from the ground over a flame trench and ascending more than 800 feet (244 m) into the dark Florida sky at Kennedy Space Center using only ALHAT's Hazard Detection System for guidance.

The Hazard Detection System, assisted by three light detection and ranging (lidar) sensors, located obstacles -- such as rocks and craters -- and safely landed on the lunar-like hazard field a quarter mile away from the NASA Center.

Project Morpheus tests NASA’s ALHAT and an engine that runs on liquid oxygen and methane, which are green propellants.

These new capabilities could be used in future efforts to deliver cargo to planetary surfaces. The landing facility provides the lander with the kind of field necessary for realistic testing, complete with rocks, craters and hazards to avoid.

Morpheus’ ALHAT payload allows it to navigate to clear landing sites amidst rocks, craters and other hazards during its descent.

Project Morpheus is being managed under the Advanced Exploration Systems (AES), Division in NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate.

The efforts in AES pioneer new approaches for rapidly developing prototype systems, demonstrating key capabilities and validating operational concepts for future human missions beyond Earth orbit.

GOES-R Instruments Complete Spacecraft Integration

Two of the six instruments that will fly on NOAA's first Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite - R (GOES-R) satellite have completed integration with the spacecraft.

The Solar Ultraviolet Imager (SUVI) and Extreme Ultraviolet and X-ray Irradiance Sensors (EXIS) were installed on the sun-pointing platform.

They will observe the sun and space weather, including coronal mass ejections, solar flares and ion fluxes that can disrupt power grids, communication and navigation systems and create radiation hazards.

"This development highlights the forward progress underway to complete the installation of the space weather instrument suite onto the GOES-R spacecraft," said Pam Sullivan, GOES-R Flight Project Manager at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland.

"It is critical we give our partners at NOAA's Space Weather Prediction Center the tools they need to improve prediction capabilities and further our knowledge of space weather."

Understanding Space Weather
The space weather mission is an important part of not only the overall GOES-R Series Program, but also NOAA's National Weather Service (NWS), which is home to the Space Weather Prediction Center.

Space weather describes the conditions in space that affect Earth and its technological systems. Space weather storms originate from the sun and occur in space near Earth or in the Earth's atmosphere.

Space weather can be difficult to understand since it is unlike the weather we experience here on Earth. For example, one type of space weather, known as coronal mass ejections, can have changing polarities, which can make it more challenging to predict the impacts of the magnetic storm.

Watch here to learn more about how space weather impacts our everyday lives. To help kids understand space weather, the GOES-R Program partnered with NASA to create materials available here for students and teachers.

Installation of the SUVI and EXIS instruments moves the program another step closer to the launch of the GOES-R satellite in early 2016.

In addition to SUVI and EXIS, the Advanced Baseline Imager (ABI) and the Space Environment In-Situ Suite (SEISS) were delivered for integration earlier this year and will be installed on the spacecraft in the coming months.

The two remaining instruments that complete the GOES-R Series Program payload are the Magnetometer and Geostationary Lightning Mapper (GLM). Both instruments are scheduled for delivery later this year.

NOAA manages the GOES-R Series Program through an integrated NOAA-NASA office, staffed with personnel from both agencies and located at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

Russian, German and US astronauts dock with ISS

A crew of Russian, German and US astronauts docked with the International Space Station Thursday as space cooperation between Moscow and the West continues despite their worst standoff since the Cold War.

"At 5:44 am Moscow time (01:44 GMT), the manned Soyuz TMA-13M spacecraft docked successfully with the ISS," the Russian space agency Roskosmos said in a statement.

Russian cosmonaut Maxim Surayev, his NASA colleague Reid Wiseman and German Alexander Gerst from the European Space Agency opened the hatch into the ISS just over two hours later, Russian mission control said on its website.

Grinning broadly, they hugged the crew of three already on board the international space laboratory, US astronaut Steve Swanson and Russians Alexander Skvortsov and Oleg Artemyev.

The Soyuz craft had blasted off from Russia's Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on schedule shortly before midnight Moscow time.

The astronauts took a six-hour fast-track route to the ISS after the previous crew to travel to the ISS in March was forced to spend two days in orbit due to a technical glitch.

The new ISS crewmembers are due to carry out a mission lasting 167 days and return to Earth in November.

Surayev, 42, is on his second lengthy ISS mission after his maiden voyage in 2009, when he became the first Russian space blogger. Wiseman and Gerst, who are both 38, are on their first space mission.

Proton Rocket Failure Probe Finds No Evidence of Misconduct

The interdepartmental state commission investigating the recent Proton-M carrier rocket launch failure has so far found no evidence supporting the theory that it was caused by deliberate misconduct, Russia's space agency Roscosmos said Thursday.

"The human factor version, including the possibility of a deliberate violation of production norms, is considered during an investigation into every accident or incident, it's a standard procedure. The commission has no information to prove it," Roscosmos said in a statement.

The commission still views technical failures in the third stage control engine as the most likely cause of the May 16 crash, in which Russia's most technologically advanced satellite was lost, the statement said.

On Thursday, the head of the government commission investigating the Proton crash, Alexander Danilyuk, said he believed a third stage engine glitch was at fault, while not ruling out that the failure occurred because of sabotage.

Last week, Danilyuk said four causes of the Proton-M accident were being considered. The commission quickly excluded a failure in the rocket's control systems.

Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin on Thursday criticized investigators for creating troubled waters too soon with half-baked theories.

The Proton-M rocket suffered an unknown failure and was lost May 16, about nine minutes after being launched from the Baikonur space center in Kazakhstan. The upper stage and its payload, the advanced Express-AM4R communications satellite, burned up in the atmosphere above China, with no debris reaching Earth.

The Express-AM4R satellite was manufactured by Astrium, an aerospace subsidiary of the European Aeronautic Defense and Space Company (EADS), and was built as part of Russia's space program for 2006-2015.

The crashed rocket was insured for 7.8 billion rubles ($224 million). A replacement for the spacecraft will be built in three years time, the Ministry of Communications and Mass Media said.

ESA Clean Space: Probing satellites' mysterious death tumbling

On 15 April, the French space agency CNES rotated the Pleiades Earth observation satellite to capture this image of Envisat. 

At a distance of about 100 km, Envisat's main body, solar panel and radar antenna were visible. Image courtesy CNES. 

Down on the ground, death equals stillness - but not in space.

Derelict satellites can tumble in unpredictable ways and ESA's team tasked with developing a space salvage mission want to find out why.

In recent years, satellites beginning uncontrolled reentries have been tracked, such as Russia's Phobos-Grunt and Germany's Rosat.

In a few cases, satellites suffering unexpected failures in orbit have also been followed, including ESA's Envisat and Japan's ADEOS-II. In every case, the satellite has been seen to be tumbling - but the reason why remains a mystery.

Similarly, when control of a satellite is temporarily lost, ESA's Operations Centre team in Darmstadt, Germany, are accustomed to fixing the satellite's attitude as a prelude to recovery - helping to better understand the satellite's status.

ESA's Clean Space initiative - tasked with reducing the space industry's environmental impact on Earth and space - is seeking to transform our understanding of how large, dead objects behave in space, encompassing launcher upper stages as well as satellites.

The aim of a new study is to combine detailed computer analysis with a range of ground-based observations, some which have only rarely been tried.

Optical telescopes and ground radar are today's favoured monitoring methods, but the study will also investigate the potential of optical and radar satellites in nearby orbits for space-to-space observations.

Highly accurate laser ranging will also be attempted. A global network of ground stations would bounce lasers off a satellite's retroreflectors - like 'cat's eyes' built into a motorway.

Laser ranging can pin down a satellite's position to within centimetres, but has seldom been attempted on out-of-control objects.

The hope is that sustained observation of particular objects over time will give new insights into the kind of factors influencing attitude changes, and how this motion is likely to change over time.

Meanwhile, specialised simulations will seek to pin down these drivers and develop reliable forecasts of how derelict satellites behave.

The long list of potential perturbations include changes in the satellite's centre of gravity as parts break off, atmospheric drag, the faint but steady push of sunlight, micrometeoroid and debris impacts, internal magnetic fields, outgassing and fuel leaks, exploding batteries and even the sloshing of leftover fuel.

For Clean Space, this study is of more than academic interest. The team is planning a dedicated satellite salvage mission called e.DeOrbit and improving our knowledge of a target's condition will help to fine-tune the design.

Bidders are welcome on the study contract. For more information, check the invitation package, accessible here.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

XCOR Raises Investment Capital Led by Dutch Investors SXC

XCOR Aerospace reports that the United States Treasury Department's Committee on Foreign Investment in the US (CFIUS) has approved the Series B lead investment by Dutch investors. 

The first closing of XCOR's new round of finance issued $14.2 million of Series B preferred shares. 

XCOR will use the funds to bring the XCOR Lynx suborbital spaceplane to market.

The Series B financing was led by Space Expedition Corporation (SXC) of The Netherlands.

Michiel Mol and Mark Hoogendoorn of SXC will join the current five members on the XCOR Board of Directors.

The first round also included many existing and new investors including: board member Esther Dyson, Pete Ricketts (co-owner of the Chicago Cubs), and a number of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and early-stage investors. A smaller second closing is scheduled over the summer.

The SXC investment in XCOR signals a strong commitment to the commercial space industry by the Dutch entity, which is also XCOR's lead wet-lease customer and general sales agent. Michiel Mol said, "With this investment in XCOR, we're closing ranks with our most strategic partner."

"We will take the next step together toward our first commercial spaceflight. I'm proud to become a part of this fantastically dedicated team of 'future makers' and game changers."

Mark Hoogendoorn noted, "Investing in XCOR is much more than investing in innovative technology and a team of highly skilled engineers. Most of all, it's investing in a long term vision we strongly believe in that will enable a new era of sustainable and regular space access that will positively impact all mankind."

Jeff Greason, Founder and CEO of XCOR, said, "We are very pleased to have this first closing of the Series B and welcome Michiel and Mark to the Board. This investment will allow us to accelerate and run in parallel several final developments in the critical path to first flight."

"This first closing of the Series B is a signal to the market that XCOR is moving ahead with its plans for commercial service and that we are nearer to that goal," said Andrew Nelson, Chief Operating Officer of XCOR.

"The Series B will remain open for a limited time as we complete discussions with a few more potential investors."

Although SXC acquired a minority position without control provisions in XCOR, the company took the cautious route of submitting the investment to CFIUS for review prior to an official public announcement. CFIUS agreed that no control provisions exist and that the investment is not a so-called "covered transaction."

Orbital Sciences Cygnus: Launch Postponed after Antares rocket test failure

Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles, Va., mated the Cygnus Service Module to the Pressurized Cargo Module Friday, April 4, in Bldg. H-100, payload processing facility, at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility, Va. Image courtesy NASA/P. Black. 

Orbital Sciences Corporation has postponed the launch of the Orbital-2 mission to the International Space Station after an engine test aborted prematurely.

The engine being tested at NASA's Stennis Space Center was slated to be used for a launch in 2015, but Orbital has taken the action to investigate the mishap before attempting to launch Orb-2.

Orbital now is looking no earlier than June 17 for the Orb-2 launch.

Orbital published the following message on their website:

Orbital has rescheduled the launch of its Antares rocket for the Orb-2 mission to a date of no earlier than (NET) June 17, 2014. Orb-2 is the second of eight cargo resupply missions to the International Space Station under Orbital's Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract with NASA.

The new launch schedule has been established to allow the engineering teams from the main stage propulsion supplier Aerojet Rocketdyne and Orbital to investigate the causes of an AJ26 (NK33) engine failure that occurred last week at NASA's Stennis Space Center during customary acceptance testing.

That engine was designated for use in a mission slated for 2015 and was undergoing hot fire testing that all Antares AJ26 engines are subject to to ensure nominal performance and acceptance for use in Antares missions.

The NET June 17 is a planning date. The determination of a new firm date will depend on progress of the investigation team, so please check back to this page for further updates.

Orion Crew Module: Heat Shield Connection and Exploration Flight Test-1

Image Credit: NASA

At the Operations and Checkout Building at NASA's Kennedy Space Center, the Orion crew module and heat shield are being moved into position for the mating operation. 

The heat shield will be tested on Orion's first flight in December, Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1), an uncrewed flight that will put to the test the spacecraft that will send astronauts to an asteroid and eventually Mars on future missions.

EFT-1 will launch an uncrewed Orion capsule 3,600 miles into space for a four-hour mission to test several of its most critical systems. 

After making two orbits, Orion will return to Earth at almost 20,000 miles per hour and endure temperatures near 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit, before its parachutes slow it down for a landing in the Pacific Ocean.

NASA XSENS ForceShoe: A sophisticated exercise device

NASA might be famous for putting man into space, but it’s now making headlines with its revolutionary sandal design.

The sandals, called XSENS ForceShoe, have been flown up with a crew of Russian, German and US astronauts to the International Space Station and will be used by the spacemen to help better understand the forces placed on an explorer’s body in different atmospheres.

Advanced Resistive Exercise Device (ARED) is a sophisticated exercise device,” said Andrea Hanson, Ph.D. and ISS Exercise Hardware Specialist.

“Although it has helped NASA provide better health outcomes for crew members, there is still progress to be made in understanding the effects of exercise on bone and muscle health, and the XSENS ForceShoe will help us do that.”

"Hanson went on to add:“As we prepare for future missions to asteroids, Mars and beyond, we need to think about minimizing and miniaturising equipment because spacecraft will be smaller."

"The XSENS ForceShoe is a great example of the way we can shrink some of our research tools for future missions."

As time continues the research completed with the shoes could prove more valuable as astronauts discover new planetary services on which to walk.

NASA's New Mega-Rocket (SLS), Orion Capsule on Track for Future Test Flights

Artist's rendering of NASA's Space Launch System (SLS) rocket being stacked inside the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB).

Credit: NASA

A new era of space exploration, supported by a history-making new mega-rocket and a spacecraft designed to deliver humans into deep space, could be on the horizon for NASA.

The space agency is gearing up to build the largest and most powerful rocket in history.

The huge launcher, called the Space Launch System (SLS), will move a new spacecraft dubbed Orion, designed to send up to four astronauts farther into the solar system than ever before.

A short list of destinations includes the moon, nearby asteroids and, eventually, Mars.

Everyone is looking forward to 2021, the year when the first manned launch will occur but before that happens, the rocket and spacecraft will have to pass a number of tests.

Most powerful rocket ever
NASA's SLS rocket might remind some space fans of the mighty Saturn V rocket used to launch Apollo moon landing flights in the 1960s and 1970s; however, the new launcher will be more powerful.

NASA currently envisions the SLS in two configurations: one weighing 77 tons and able to lift more than 154,000 pounds, another weighing 143 tons and able to lift more than 286,000 pounds.

The smaller configuration, which is expected to carry a crew of astronauts, will create 8.4 million pounds of thrust, 10 percent more than the massive Saturn V rocket.

The larger configuration, which will carry cargo, will create 9.2 million pounds of thrust, 20 percent more than a Saturn V.

This version will be as tall as a 38-story building. The SLS will truly be a mountain of a machine.

For its power, the SLS will rely on two solid rocket boosters in addition to the huge, 200-foot-tall (61 meters) core stage, which will carry liquid hydrogen and oxygen to fuel four RS-25 rocket engine.

The RS-25 rocket engine is a workhorse: It powered the space shuttle and "operated with 100-percent mission success during 135 space shuttle missions," according to a NASA statement.

The power produced by the three engines is equal to that from 12 Hoover Dams.

NASA currently has a stockpile of 16 RS-25 rocket engines at the Stennis Space Center, in Mississippi.

The engines themselves had to be modified to put out more power than they did for the space shuttle missions, and therefore still require testing. Those tests will probably occur in mid-July, NASA has said.

Soyuz TMA-13M rocket is launched with Expedition 40 on board

The Soyuz TMA-13M rocket is launched with Expedition 40 Soyuz Commander Maxim Suraev, of the Russian Federal Space Agency, Roscosmos, Flight Engineer Alexander Gerst, of the European Space Agency, ESA, and Flight Engineer Reid Wiseman of NASA in the early hours of Thursday, May 29, 2014 at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Suraev, Gerst, and Wiseman will spend the next five and a half months aboard the International Space Station.

Image Credit: NASA/Joel Kowsky

Gemini Planet Imager (GPI): New imaging technique reveal planets near bright stars

The GPI is mounted on mounted on a side port of the instrument support structure of the Gemini South telescope. 

Credit: Gemini Planet Observatory

The Gemini Planet Imager (GPI) was built for one purpose: imaging extrasolar planets.

In the seven months since it came online, GPI is proving to be an order-of-magnitude improvement-so much so that it may rewrite the rules of planet-hunting.

Planet-hunting bears some similarity to tracking a rare species through the jungle.

There are a variety of ways to know that it's there, most of which are indirect: The leaves rustling. The undergrowth is trampled. The animal's shadow appears for a fleeting moment before it fades away again.

It is much the same with planets. We can detect them moving their parent planets ever-so-slightly via Doppler shift.

GPI functioning testbed system
We can see the light from that star dim as an exoplanet-or the planet's shadow-passes in front of it.

Once in a while, a young star's dust disk will have a gap in it, from which we infer the presence of a formed or forming planet.

These detection methods have allowed us to catalog over 1700 exoplanets since 1994.

Naturally, ultimate achievement in observation is to see the species or the planet with our own eyes.

That's what the Gemini Planet Imager (GPI) does best: direct detection of exoplanets.

Technically, direct detection means spatially resolving the light of a planet from the light of its parent star: taking a picture of the planet itself.

Before GPI, there were serious limitations to our ability to photograph an exoplanet.

Optical design of the GPI science camera.
The photographic exposure had to be long and the contrast between the star and the exoplanet had to be high. With GPI, what used to be a one-hour photo has become a one-minute photo.

The contrast can be three orders of magnitude lower - the planet can be 1000 times dimmer - and the photo will still turn out.

Micro-Electro-Mechanical Systems (MEMS) mirrors
This remarkable improvement in exoplanet imaging is achieved with a variety of new technologies: for example, deformable silicon Micro-Electro-Mechanical Systems (MEMS) mirrors.

The mirrors can bend and flex in ways that counters atmospheric distortion.

GPI also has a diffraction-suppressing coronagraph, which blocks the light from the parent star so that the planet can be seen more clearly, and an integral field spectrograph, which allows spectra to be taken over an entire two-dimensional field of the sky.

By combining these and other related technologies, images like the now-famous photo of Beta Pictoris b are produced.

They reveal planets many dozens of light years away glowing with residual radiation from their formations millions of years ago.

The bright white dot is the planet Beta Pictoris b, glowing in the infrared light from the heat released when it was formed 10 million years ago. 

The bright star Beta Pictoris b is hidden behind a mask at the center of the image. 

Credit: GPI

GPI can also supply information about the exoplanet's atmospheric composition and interactions with nearby objects such as asteroid belts.

GPI was deployed on the 8-m Gemini South telescope in Chile. Its first image or "first light" took place in November 2013.

Since then, GPI has done an unprecedented job of capturing Jupiter-sized objects around stars similar to our Sun.