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Sunday 17 December 2017

Two new acheivements in private spaceflight...

The view over the engine bell of a SpaceX rocket, leaving Earth behind for the  GEO satellite belt.

Over the last fifteen years a lot of words associated with the fledgling private space flight industry have gone from being said almost in mockery to being said in earnest - even admiration. This week has seen two events that highlight why....

SpaceX has flown a flight proven booster, with a flight proven space capsule, to the International Space Station:

When Elon Musk's ground breaking 'SpaceX' (Space eXploration technologies) company announced they were planning to start re-using the first stage boosters from their rockets they were referred to as 'flight proven' - a euphemism for  'risky and unproven technology'.

Today that phrase 'flight-proven' is being used in earnest. And, to prove it, last week they flew not just a flight proven booster - but a flight proven booster carrying a flight-proven capsule, on a supply run to the international space station:


That's a milestone, because it makes SpaceX's vehicles mostly re-usable and therefore well positioned to bring the costs of spaceflight down. And, coming in the same week that Trump signed his (fairly vague) instructions for NASA to make a manned return to the Moon, it makes the upcoming decade look rather interesting for fans of manned space exploration....

Blue Origin flies 'Mannequin skywalker' to the edge of space:

Jeff Bezo's secretive company 'Blue Origin' has made impressive  progress in getting their 'New Shepherd' space vehicle ready to start ferrying passengers and missions to the edge of space. But a hydraulic malfunction on their first full tale test flight last year put a crimp in their plans. Now they've resumed  by flying a test dummy to the edge of space... a test dummy named Mannequin Skywalker.

No say anything about wanting to send Hayden Christensen into space.

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Thursday 7 December 2017

'Liquid' - in deep frozen interstellar ice.

The rings of Saturn, made of trillions of ciy particles loaded with organic matter - how far can chemical evolution get in such places? 

Life arose here on Earth... but how far did purely chemical evolution get towards life, on the planetoids and protoplanets of the early solar system? New research from Hokkaido University implies it might have been further than we thought. 

Meteorites dating from long before Earth have been found to contain the chemical components of proteins, cell walls, and even building blocks of DNA. Exactly how that happens is badly understood. We know these meteorites are fragments of ancient proto-worlds - worlds which were surprisingly planet like, with liquid water percolating through their rocks, planet like cores and volcanism, out gassing driving short lived atmospheres, and magnetic fields. They could have provided the right environments to process the more primitive chemistry in the Sun's protoplanetary disk.

But some meteorites contain relatively advanced pre-biotic chemistry despite showing no sign of ever having gotten above freezing. So where did it come from?

Now a surprising explanation has been discovered: Researchers from Hokkaido University in Japan have discovered that simple organic compounds, frozen in interstellar ice, start reacting with each other as if they are in a liquid, when exposed to ultraviolet light. The interstellar ice itself, despite being far below freezing, seems to behave like a super cold fluid - somehow. 

Above: Deep frozen, artificial, 'interstellar ice' bubbling like boiling water under UV light.

That's plenty of a mystery itself, but discovering that this kind of chemistry can take place in the ice grains floating in space (instead of a planetary environment) literally opens up a sky full of new possibilities: Across large parts of the universe worlds could be forming with half the chemical steps towards starting life already done.

Our skies might just have become a lot more crowded. For the original paper click here.