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Friday, 18 December 2015

Thank you and goodnight!

Real life - and the demands of other projects that I've committed to - have caught up with me. I always said I'd try running this blog for a year, and it's been an education, as well as a ton of fun. Sadly I just can't find the time to do it properly anymore, so this will be the last post here for a good long while. I hope you've enjoyed reading as much as I've enjoyed writing it!

All the best,

John Freeman

Monday, 14 December 2015

Factory-in-space prototype gets the go ahead, storm on a teeny star, rare shot of Antarctca from space....

Hi all, I'm away for a couple of days after this, so see you the end of the week!

Space Systems Loral asked by NASA's Tipping Point program to develop in-space satellite factory

NASA is getting serious about the idea of satellite factories in space, and has tapped Space Systems Loral to develop a ground based proof of concept for the idea. This will be part of NASA's Tipping Point program, and builds on SSL's DARPA funded Dragonfly study, which established the theoretical feasibility of the idea.
"NASA's Tipping Point program enables SSL to qualify new technologies for the commercial market while at the same time providing advances for future NASA missions," said John Celli, president of SSL. "Satellites assembled on-orbit using our integrated robotics capability will be capable of higher performance than satellites that can be launched today. An added benefit will be antennas that can be moved and changed during a satellite's mission life for flexibility and to accommodate changing market requirements."
SSL has experience building robotics for the Space Shuttle, the International Space Station and the Mars landers and rovers.
Above: An artists impression of a communications satellite in orbit. courtesy of ...

Student experiment discovers vast ring of dust filling our solar system

The Student Dust Experiment is a unique take on the idea of a student experiment - unique because it's currently bolted to the 'front' of NASA's New Horizons space probe, quite an achievement for a student run experiment. It's an impact  detector, meaning that it picks up dust by registering when it smashes into the detector. As of late 2010, when it passed a distance of 18 AU (1.7 billion miles or 2.7 billion kilometers), SDC became the farthest reaching dust impact detector in history!  As SDC plunges through our dust disk, they’ve been able to measure and characterise the dust density distribution from Earth to Pluto, and beyond. The majority of the particles are thought to be from Kuiper belt object. With this information, not only can we better understand our solar system, but also help unravel the mysteries of countless other solar systems throughout the observable universe.

Above: A simulation of the Solar Systems dust disk, based on the SDC  results.

Teeny star has Jupiter-like storm

"The star is the size of Jupiter, and its storm is the size of Jupiter's Great Red Spot," said John Gizis of the University of Delaware, Newark. "We know this newfound storm has lasted at least two years, and probably longer." Gizis is the lead author of a new study appearing in The Astrophysical Journal, which describes how the tiny L-dwarf has been found to have the storm near one pole. 

Above: An animation of the storm. Courtesy of University of Delaware.

This, and other images (follow the link) have been released in poster size to support  International Polar Year. Based on  data from the AMSR-E satellite, and courtesy of NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio, it's worth having a look on zoom, trust me!

Saturday, 12 December 2015

NASA goes to the Sun, pictures from around the solar system, and how Akatsuki got to Venus.....

NASA's mission to the Sun passes critical design review

There's been a lot of amazing science done by space platforms observing the Sun from a safe distance. But at some point you have to get stuck in there - and NASA agrees which is why they're sending the Solar Probe Plus mission to get closer to the Sun than any spacecraft before.

Above: The Sun. Here's why we don't give too much AI to space probes: NASA "Hey, why don't you fly into that?" Over AI'd space probe: "No." End of mission to the Sun.

How Akatsuki's engineers used an 'inspired hack' to get it into Venus orbit

The spirit of McGyver and Scotty must have been hanging about with JAXA engineers over the last year, because after their Akatsuki probe had an engine breakdown they used some audacious space navigation and engine hacks to get their ship where it wanted to go anyway. My fellow space geek and pro blogger Emily Lakdewalla explains how.

Above: He cannae change the laws of physics... unless, y'know, there might be a pay rise in it captain?

BBC has a good breakdown of future missions to Enceladus

This tiny moon has stunned the science community by turning out to hold a potentially habitable ocean beneath its icy crust. As the Cassini mission bids fare thee well to Enceladus for the last time the BBC science team take a look at what might be the next steps in exploring this icy moon...

Above: Enceladus, courtesy of JPL/NASA

Ancient star cluster reveals secrets of our galaxy's past

An incredibly ancient cluster of stars may hold clues to our galaxy's birth. As well as being incredibly ancient, and in the last days of its existence, the cluster is distorted into an odd rhomboidal shape by the gravity of surrounding stars.

Above: The incredibly ancienmt, dying, E3 star cluster.

Lastly, some very brain melting pictures from across the solar system:

The dunes and hills of Mars, courtesy of JPL/NASA/Thoma Appere

Akatsuki's first UV image of Venus, courtesy of JAXA.

The twisted landscape of comet 67-P, as of December 7th, courtesy of ESA.

The weird little moon Prometheus, set against Saturn's F ring, courtesy of JPL/NASA.

Friday, 11 December 2015

A new planet? Whoa there.....

ALMA array finds new member of our solar system?

This is the big news hitting the web today: The ALMA array may have detected something big - an Earth sized planet big or bigger sort of big - on the edge of our solar system....but I really need to put the emphasis on 'may' and 'something': 
  • Firstly, a lot of people are pointing out that it's a huge coincidence for ALMA, which has a tiny field of view, to have detected this object by pure either ALMA has been very lucky,or there are a lot of these things, or it's not real - some kind of illusion caused by a problem with the array.
  • Second, as the authors of the paper make clear themselves, it's not at all clear what this thing is, or even how big it is. It's literally just a point on a couple of their scans.
  • Lastly, the paper is a preprint - that means it's a rough draft and hasn't been peer reviewed or accepted for publication by anyone. In other words no-one has independently fact checked it, and that's a HUGE part of good science. Scientific American has good write up on this aspect of it.
So watch this space... but don't send your new planet name suggestions off just yet....

Above: The ALMA array.

Mists and fogs on Ceres?

For years now astronomers have been puzzled by the mysterious bright areas on the surface of Ceres. At first they were just some slightly brighter patches visible to Hubble. The the dawn mission arrived, and revealed some irregularly shaped patches of the surface that seemed to have incredibly bright white surfaces.... and that's where our knowledge stopped: These patches were unlike anything we'd ever seen. They mystified us. To be frank they still do.

Just recently Dawn has been able to send back some new clues: We now know these patches are probably not ice, but a paper published this week seems to show evidence that at certain times of the Cerean day these bright patches are emitting vapours and fogs of some kind. That's deepened the mystery still further as the most likely material to evaporate and cause fogs - probably clouds of vapour crystals rather than clouds of water droplets - is ice, which has been ruled out as a cause of the bright patches. All we can do is keep gathering data, and wait for the right clues to solve the puzzle....

Above: Images and caption from the paper, showing the purported mists: Occator contains the brightest spot on Ceres. This is a pit covered by bright material, and the surrounding area shows a specific diurnal brightness rhythm, which becomes detectable at oblique views. a, Oblique view at noon reveals a diffuse near-surface haze (white) that fills the floor of its host crater. This haze disappears completely at dusk (b). The low column density of the haze is indicated by the very oblique limb views at noon (c and d), and the haze does not extend above the elevated southwestern part of the crater floor (left in c). There is a lapse of 450 s between the taking of the images shown in c and d

Vapour farming experiment approved for testing on Mars

Salt has a lot to answer for on Mars: Especially a particular group of salts that suck moisture out of the thin Martian air until they self-dissolve into tiny water droplets. This phenomena, called deliquescence, is suspect number 1 for how the seeps that are thought to cause recurring slope linea form, and earlier this year Javier Martin-Torres and his colleagues reported results from NASA’s Curiosity rover suggesting that liquid water pools just beneath the surface of Mars at night before evaporating during the day. 

To test the idea in a more controlled way, the ESA ExoMars rover will carry an experiment called HABIT, which will use salts to absorb 5 millilitres of water from the atmosphere a day, and it can hold up to 25  millilitres in total. The motivation isn't pure curiosity: If the process works, it can easily be scaled up to provide water for future crewed missions to Mars. "HABIT can be easily adapted to ‘water-farms’ for in-situ resource production,” Torres told New Scientist Magazine. “We will produce Martian liquid water on Mars, that could be used in the future exploration of Mars for astronauts and greenhouses.”

Above: The 'recurring slope linea' that form on some Martian slopes and are thought to be due to liquid water. Courtesy of NASA.

Deal struck to build Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer mission

Airbus and the European Space Agency have signed the contract that will lead to the construction of a space probe known as JUICE (JUpiter ICy moon Explrer - the things people will do for a good acronym)  to study Jupiter and its icy moons.
The probe will launch in 2022 and arrive at the giant planet 7.5 years later. The 5.5-tonne probe is being built in Toulouse in France, however components will be sourced from across Europe, America, and Japan. The full price for the JUICE is expected to exceed one billion euros, one of ESA's biggest missions to date, and as well as other goals it will help us understand the potential habitability of Jupiter's icy moons..

Above: Ganymede, one of Jupiter's potentially ocean bearing moons.

Wednesday, 9 December 2015

Superflares, ESA sets sights on the Moon, Exploring exoplanetary atmospheres....

Devastating solar superflare?

Our Sun is a pretty impressive thing - a naturally formed nuclear fusion reactor, so huge its gravity measurably distorts space and time.. When it throws a wobbly - like an x class flare - it can cause radio blackouts, damage power grids and knock out satellites.
But evidence is emerging that the Sun can sometimes put out a flare that is less  a tantrum, and more a full on rage: It seems our Sun might be capable of sending out a superflare a thousand times stronger than anything in recorded history - a flare that would devastate today's technology dependant civilisation.

Above: Areas of twisted magnetic field on the Sun, a precursor to a flare or coronal mass ejection. Courtesy of  NASA.

ESA explains the importance of sea level in climate change

Climate change is almost always in the news these days, either because of people trying to stop it or trying to pretend it isn't happening. But lets be honest, most of us don't know much about what the detailed mechanisms behind climate change are. In this video ESA explains the role of sea level,  and why it's one of the things they monitor.

British mission to measure exoplanet atmospheres 

Twinkle is a  low-cost mission, built be the University of Central Lancashire and Surrey Satellite Technology, that will use spectroscopy to decode the light from hundreds of extrasolar planets. Twinkle will be able to reveal, for the first time, the chemical composition, weather and history of worlds orbiting distant stars - not quite as good as the starship Enterprise, but it's a step along the road. The Twinkle satellite will be built in the UK and launched into a low-Earth orbit.

Above: The Twinkle spacecraft - looking very un-twinkly and slightly death-ray like if you ask me.

ESA's lunar symposium - what's next for our Moon?

The ESA space exploration strategy and the ISECG Global Exploration Roadmap underline the strategic significance of the Moon in a global space exploration endeavour. The international vision for lunar exploration calls for a new era of coordinated human and robotic missions enabled by broad international cooperation. The ISS programme has demonstrated the importance of a robust international partnership for ISS development, assembly, operations and effective utilisation. Now is the time to build on this partnership and open it to new partners to continue the journey beyond low Earth orbit. The symposium "Moon 2020-2030" will be a key step in advancing the international approach for lunar exploration together with key players from agencies, academia, and industry. I personally look forward to the innovative ideas and mission that will be discussed and the feedback from the stakeholders.

Thomas Reiter

ESA Director of Human Spaceflight and Operations

Above: ESA's pan for a lunar transport architecture.

Tuesday, 8 December 2015

Factory in space, dark matter stars.....

Prototype in-space factory built

A company called Magna Parva has produced a prototype of an in-space factory that should be able to produce gigantic structures in space  without the need to launch them off the Earth. This could open the door to building things in space too big or too fragile to be launched on a rocket. It's called COPMA, which stands for ‘Consolidated Off Planet Manufacturing and Assembly System for Large Space Structures’. Want to see huge-ass spaceships built? Then this is the technology to keep an eye on...
Above: I promise, that thing didn't get launched into space on a piddly little rocket like we use today.... Courtesy of Disney.

Dark matter stars

Dark matter-  that mysterious stuff that seems to interact with the rest of the universe only by gravity - may clump together in 1000 kilometre sized packets with strange properties. The 'dark stars' ( Which they aren't really since they wouldn't give off energy, but hey, it's a cool name and why be pedantic?) would be naturally forming Bose-Einstein condensates, where all the atoms inside acted as one. Here's the original paper, although it's pay per view.

Above: Ceres, a dwarf planet that would be about the same size as the dark matter 'stars'. Courtesy of JPL.

Fraser Cain takes a look at wormholes:

Fraser Cain is editor of Universe Today, and pretty much one of the biggest space buffs around. Here he's taking a look at wormholes: In science fiction, wormholes are a method often used to travel great distances across space. First proposed by Einstein (amongst others) there's always ben a question mark in the theories about whether they could be built in real life, and exactly what they'd really do....

Sunday, 6 December 2015

Earth sized telescope sees galactic black hole, Akatsuki arriveas at Venus........

Event Horizon telescope 'sees' back hole magnetic fields 

The Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) is still under construction, but when it's fully built it will be a global network of radio telescopes that link together to function as one giant, Earth-sized telescope. It will be able to spot an orange on the surface of the Moon ( A radio transmitting orange at least*). But even now, half built, EHT has resolved features at the horizon of our galaxy's central black hole 26,000 light-years away from Earth. Specifically it has used the polarisation of the light coming from hot matter right up close to the hole to learn about the magnetic fields around it.

"Because of technical advances with the EHT, we can now detect this polarization information. And because the emission near Sgr A* is synchrotron radiation, the direction of linear polarization traces the magnetic fields. So that's how we can go from measuring polarization at the telescope to understanding magnetic fields near the black hole," says EHT researcher Michael Johnson. They also found that the magnetic fields fluctuated on short time scales of only 15 minutes or so.
"Once again, the galactic center is proving to be a more dynamic place than we might have guessed," says Johnson. "Those magnetic fields are dancing all over the place."

Above: An artist impression of Saggitarius A*, our galaxy's central black hole.

'Lost in space' Akatsuki probe finally makes it to Venus! 

A Japanese space probe that was trapped in an orbit around the Sun after an engine broke down as it tried to enter orbit around Venus, has finally made it to the hellish planet, after engineers used its manoeuvring thrusters to make a second attempt - although the orbit has not yet been independently confirmed.
“It is in orbit!!” reported Sanjay Limaye of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who is working with the science team in Sagamihara, Japan.“We had a perfect operation!” says project manager Masato Nakamura 

Elsewhere in the universe:

Suborbital X-ray telescope

Mini spacecraft factory

Russia's crumbling economy cuts ROSCOSMOS budget 

* I know of no plans to send radio transmitting oranges to the Moon. Although I'm sure I've just inspired at least one reader to draw a picture of one.

Saturday, 5 December 2015

New Pluto images, Virgin's orbital launcher, NASA's miniature Sun mission.....

New Pluto images:
New Horizon's slow, slowwwww download of the data it took during it's historic flyby of Pluto (it's down loading from beyond the furthest planet in our solar system, so I suppose we can't complain too much) has revealed some of the strangest and most astounding landscapes on Pluto so far. The images are all part of one huge mosaic, taken in a long strip by New Horizon's Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) camera during its july flyby. The strip is fifty miles wide, and these new images are six times better than the resolution of the global Pluto map New Horizons obtained, and five times better than the best images of Pluto’s cousin Triton, Neptune’s large moon, obtained by Voyager 2 in 1989.

Follow the strip from one end to the other, and it takes us on a journey across the surface of an incredibly strange world that human eyes will probably never see up close: From the mountainous Plutonian horizon, where what might be haze in the atmosphere can be seen hovering over the hills...

Above: Pluto's Horizon, Courtesy of JPL

...across terrain punctuated by fractures and dark asteroid craters, that seem to have drilled into the surface and revealed layers of lighter and darker material....

Above: Impact craters, that have revealed a strange gobstopper like structure to the Plutonian sub surface. Courtesy of JPL/NASA the mountainous shores of Pluto's great sea of nitrogen ice glaciers, which is divided into  strange cell-like structures, and which show wave like features in the new close ups.....

Above: The coast of Pluto's nitrogen glacier sea. Courtesy of JPL/NASA

... then on over the heart of the glacier sea, where pits that have aligned them selves into bizarre, almost organic, patterns are seen...

Above: the weirdly aligned pits that cover the surface of the glaciers. Courtesy of NAS/JPL.

The pits seem to contain some sort of dark material, much like the dark stuff welling up along the boundaries of the huge cells:

Above: A close up of some of the pits.

I have no idea what to compare these pits to - their strangely organic way of aligning with each other, and the dark material they reveal (is that the surface beneath the glaciers?) doesn't exactly match anything I've ever seen in the solar system, although some strange pit features on the surface of Mercury come close:

Above: The mysterious pits on Mercury, which are formed by an unknown  process and seem to be eating into the rock cross the planet. Courtesy of NASA/JPL

In fact a lot of the things we've seen on Pluto - the pits, the cell-like glaciers, the dragon skin terraion - have a weirdly organic look to them. The chances of anything we see on Pluto being evidence of life a re extremely tiny: Anything that lived on Pluto would need to be buried deep underground where there might still be enough warmth for liquid wate, or be based on some strange and exotic chemistry that could survive under the incredible cold and near vacuum of Pluto. But, that said, perhaps Pluto is telling us that some principles and patterns extend to both living and non living things alike, when the conditions are right?
I don't know what the significance of it all is, but I do know that they information New Horizons is sending back will keep scientists busy - and mystified - for decades to come.

Thanks to Herobrine of all the raw Pluto pictures are collected for you here. The LORRI strip mosaic is available here, or you can watch the NASA video of it below: 

Lastly, to cap it off, New Horizons has taken one of the closest ever images of a Kuiper Belt Object (KBO), part of the belt of icy'asteroids' that encircles all the planets:

Above: The LORRI images of the KBO. Courtesy of JPL/NASA.

Elsewhere in the Universe:

Kettle sized Sun mission

The bread loaf-sized Miniature X-Ray Solar Spectrometer CubeSat is scheduled to rocket to space alongside thousands of kilograms of supplies and science experiments destined for the International Space Station. MinXSS will study the spectroscopy of soft x-rays, a kind of radiation from the Sun which is highly variable and can affect GPS and radio. MinXSS will hitch a ride to space aboard Orbital ATK’s Cygnus cargo spacecraft, and be launched ionto space from the ISS. Cubesat missions like these provide a great way to get students involved in real space missions: "I've worked on nearly every aspect of MinXSS," said James Mason, a graduate student studying aerospace engineering at the University of Colorado Boulder. "Students can get involved with everything on a CubeSat mission—systems engineering, management, manufacturing, and even on-orbit science analysis."

Virgin Galactic unmanned LauncherOne rocket takes shape

LauncherOne is Virgin Galactic's move to break into the growing market for launching small spacecraft (like cubesats). It was unveiled to the public with the understanding that Virgin Galactic’s WhiteKnightTwo aircraft  would ferry the air-launch rocket to altitude for all missions, the same as it does the SpaceShip2 manned vehicle.That has changed however, because the interest and initial mission contracts were so much that it would have strained WhiteKnightTwo’s ability to adequately perform both SpaceShipTwo and LauncherOne missions.
“Demand has become so significant that LauncherOne will have its own dedicated aircraft,” noted Virgin Galactic CEO George T. Whitesides. That aircraft will be a converted Boeing 747, named the Cosmic Girl.


Thursday, 3 December 2015

LISA launches, and using space as a resource to feed the world...

Farms use space resources to grow more food with less waste

Farming is not something most people would immediately associate with space exploration - unless you're thinking of Matt Damon's ill fated potato crop - but monitoring crops from space is actually one of the most important uses of space: Satellite data is used for everything from predicting draught conditions to showing which areas are producing the best (or worst) yields, and for working out why.
A new service called TalkingFields, developed with the assistance of ESA since 2010, aims to help farmers get the best from their land while cutting the environmental costs. Satellite data are fine-tuned to the needs of individual farmers by  combining optical satellite images with information from ground sensors, satnav and sophisticated crop growth models. It's not landing on a comet, or finding water on Mars, but this is just one of the ways that using space as a resource improves fundamental things about life back here on Earth.

Above: These are space potatoes. Honestly.

"Agriculture is becoming a data-driven business," explains Heike Bach, CEO at Vista, the company behind TalkingFields. The satellite data also helps minimise environmental damage:. The runoff from overuse of nitrogen and phosphate can cause ground water pollution and vast seasonal algal blooms in the oceans. "We're targeting zero runoff," says Dr Bach. "Minimising the environmental cost of farming in this way is a real benefit to society."
ESA's Tony Sephton said: "There are existing services variously using Earth observation data, satellite navigation, farm management software and crop models, but TalkingFields combines them all."

ESA's LISA mission lauinches to hunt for ripples in space time

ESA's LISA mission launched today, on a mission to test the technology astrophysicists hope to use to hunt down gravitational waves, one of the last unconfirmed predictions of General Relativity.

Above: The LISA mission launches to it's new base at the L1 gravitational plateau. Courtesy of ESA.

Elsewhere in the Unverse:

Neutron stars, hypernova, and gamma ray bursts all linked

It turns out that the insanely swirling innards of a supernova link all three .

Artist Jay Simmons presents a timeline of the Universe:

Click on the image to get the full szed version, and get your scrolling finger limbered up - this will test it.

Wednesday, 2 December 2015

Giant cosmic cold spot gets stranger, SpaceX to attempt landing re-usable rocket (maybe), and JAXA to try and get into orbit around Venus....

The cold spot that reaches across the universe

The cosmic microwave background is the radiation 'echo' of the big bang, and the Cold Spot is a gap in that background radiation that has defied good explanations. The CS seems to line up with a huge region, called a supervoid, where galaxies and stars are sparse, although it's not clear what the connection between them might be. This paper looks at the idea that the CS might be the result of a string of supervoids, all lined up from Earth's point of view.

Above: A CMB map showing the cold spot. Courtesy of WMAP.

Exo-planet thrown into the depths of space

A large planet seems to have been booted out of the inner region of its home star system, in a cosmic accident similar to the one that is thought to have driven a fifth giant planet out of our own solar system billions of years ago. The rogue planet may even have taken a piece of it's star's debris disk along for the ride.

SpaceX may try to land re-usable rocket on terra firma

An unconfirmed report suggests that Elon Musks Space X will soon attempt to land one of its re-usable rocket stages on land. the Company has been seeking to develop re-usable rocket technology, and has failed in two previous attempts to land rockets on a floating ocean platform. 

One JAXA mission prepares to enter orbit around Venus 

AJXA's Akatsuki mission was supposed to enter orbit around Venus in 2014, but an engine malfunction left it marooned in orbit around the Sun. Now the incredibly resourceful JAXA engineers are readying for a second attempt to reach Venus on December the 7th.

Above: A colourised view of Venus. Courtesy of ESA

...While another is about to slingshot around Earth 

Another JAXA mission, Hayabusa 2, is getting ready to pick up some more speed via a slingshot manouver around Earth. the probes ultimate destination is an asteroid known as  162173 Ryugu, and it has taken pictures of Earth as it approaches its slingshot.
Above: Images taken by Hayabusa 2 of the Earth and Moon. Courtesy of JAXA

Tuesday, 1 December 2015

ESA readies LISA, Weather satellite explodes in space, and a hint on Jeff Bezos' plans....

Lisa Pathfinder mission gets ready to fly

The LISA pathfinder mission will test the technology to (possibly!) detect gravitational waves, one of the last unconfirmed predictions of Einstein's theory of general relativity - finding them or ruling them out could severely change our understanding of the Universe. So it's no surprise that the mission controllers have been training hard to run the mission, and are eagerly awaiting its launch. They completed their final dress rehearsal late last week, and the mission will lift off on a Vega rocket on the second of December. It will be stationed a Lagrange point, a gravitational plateau in space. 

Above: Infographic of LISA's mission, courtesy of ESA.

Space mining law may violate international treaty

A US law that was welcomed by proponents of mining objects in space, because it began to set a legal frame work for claiming ownership of goods derived from in space mining, may be in breach of international treaties, a group of lawyers have stated.
Ram Jakhu, a professor at McGill University's institute of air and space law, told the Canadian Broadcast Company he thinks the new law is direct violation of the treaty. "My view is that natural resources [in space] should not be allowed to be appropriated by anyone -- states, private companies, or international organizations," Jakhu said.

Skylon talk 

You may have heard of Skylon before: It's an attempt to build an unmanned reusable space plane, using a revolutionary design of jet/rocket hybrid engine called SABRE. They've won funding from BAE systems and the British government. The USAF has declared the SABRE engine design is feasible...... basically there're a lot of big hopes coming from this company, and I've stumbled across a very interesting talk by Reaction Engines' Richard Varvill from earlier this year.

Above: A presentation from April on Skylon, by Richard Varville

A U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration satellite, retired in 2014, has apparently exploded in space. If confirmed this will be the second time this year that a satellite in polar orbit has exploded. A design flaw in the space platforms batteries is suspected of causing the explosion. other space craft are not currently thought to be in danger from the debris.

Blue origin launch is a big step towards re-usable orbital space flight, says Jeff Bezos

There is a difference between orbital and sub orbital flight: A sub orbital craft just needs to leave earth's atmosphere, while an orbital craft needs to build up the tremendous sideways speed needed to get onto an orbit. So a lot of people (including SpaceX founder Elon Musk) pointed out that the successful test flight of Blue Origin's sub orbital rocket last week was just that - sub orbital, and not likely to lead to a re-usable orbital launch vehicle.

But Blue origin's founder, Jeff Bezos disagrees: “(For) our orbital plans, we’ve leased pad 36 at Cape Canaveral, and we’re building an orbital system, but the first stage — the booster stage of that — will be architecturally identical to the vehicle that we just flew because the environments and everything else are very, very similar, and having demonstrated that, we’ve basically validated that architecture with this flight,” he said. 

I wonder which direction he'll be taking his spacecraft technology - in every sense?

Above: The launch of Blue Origin'srocket. Courtesy of Blue Origin. 

Monday, 30 November 2015

Blue origin to begin commercial flights, ARM report available, and Yutu rover keeps on truckin'

Model T ford of rockets
Firefly Space Systems, a launch company specialising in launches for the rapidly growing small sat market, have gone on record as saying that they want their next design of space launcher to be the 'Model T ford' of rockets - by which I assume they mean they intend it to bring space access to a massive new market, not that it will have a top speed of 45 mph. 

Above: A video run down on Firefly Space System's efforts to build their advanced smallsat launcher. Courtesy of Firefly Space Systems

Asteroid Redirection Mission  - F.A.S.T. report available for public comment

NASA has released a draft copy of it's FAST (Final Assessment and Support Team) report of the ARM (Asteroid Redirection Mission), for public comment and feedback. Now, a lot of people are expecting that, just like George W Bush's project constellation, ARM will get cancelled  with the next change of US government. But on the off chance it doesn't here's your chance to tell NASA what you think of it, and maybe shape how it turns out - the email address to send your comments to is .

Yutu rover lives to see another day

Although it's been crippled for a long time now, the Yutu Moon 'rover' is still alive and talking to Earth from the Lunar surface, despite predictions that it would quickly succumb to the bitterly cold Lunar nights. The Chang'e lander craft that delivered it to the surface is also still operating - for nearly two years each, now -and functioning as an ultraviolet lunar observatory. Yutu itself has discovered that the Lunar geography is more complex than previously thought.

Above: Yutu rover on the surface, as seen by the Chang'e optical/UV observatory. Courtesy of the Chinese Government.

Hairy dark matter!

Does Earth have a hairy halo of dark matter? Since dark matter is expected to pass through ordinary matter like a ghost, this is an intriguing idea as the 'hairs' would pass through Earth's crust as if it wasn't there, and all join up at the core. Measuring these dark matter hairs might even provide a way to probe the deep structure of our planet, as they would reach right into the planet's core.

Angel Balloon

As more people focus on low cost ways of accessing space, near space balloon flights are getting more and more interest. Here's one example of the kind of new technologies that bare being tested on balloons: A NASA team launched a balloon in New Mexico to demonstrate the controlled descent of a high altitude balloon payload to a predetermined landing site. It flew to 120,000 feet and then disconnected from the balloon and was guided to the landing site by a paragliding parachute - see the video below:


Antarctica's newest observatory

With it's high altitude, thin air, low humidity, and stillness, Ridge A in Antarctica is the closest thing to a view from space you can get on the surface of the Earth - which is why a consortium of astronomers has built and placed a robotic observatory there. Called HEAT (High Elevation Antarctic Terahertz - hey, I didn't pick the name) the telescope is exploring star forming regions, some of the most important yet enigmatic regions in our Galaxy.

Above: The HEAT robotic telescope, courtesy of the University of Arizona.

Blue origin plans to launch space flights in summer 2016

Following it's successful sub-orbital flight last week (which resulted in a bit of a flame war between Blue origin's director, Jeff Bezos, and Space X founder Elon Musk) Blue origin plans to begin launching research payloads into space this coming summer, with manned flights to follow. for a video of their historic test flight, see below: 


Earth caught in supernova's afterglow 

An analysis of the intensity and direction of high energy particles reaching Earth suggests that our planet may still be caught in the 'afterglow' of a supernova that happened over two million years ago.

ULA to give miniature space craft free rideshare into space 

United Launch Alliance (ULA) will begin adding a cubesat dispenser on to its Atlas V rockets in 2017, allowing up to 24 cubesats to be launched alongside its main payload. Although most of the slots will be paid for, ULA will allow for several free rides for University payloads.
The cubesat/miniature spacecraft market is growing, with numerous small satellites being developed and already launched via a variety of launch vehicles. Still smaller spacecraft, such as thumbsats and chipsats are also being developed.

Above: The strange looking high altitude trail of an Atlas V rocket.

Above: The launch of an Atlas V, courtesy of ULA.