Another Amazing Image from Webb, This Time it’s Galaxy IC 5332

The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) continues to both dazzle and amaze with its latest image, this time of Galaxy IC 5332, also known as PGC 71775, which is an intermediate spiral galaxy located approximately 30 million light years away. This comes after JWST released its first images at its full power, which includes the Carina Nebula, Stephan’s Quintet, Southern Ring Nebula, and SMACS 0723, the last of which was the deepest and sharpest image of the distant universe to date.

Continue reading “Another Amazing Image from Webb, This Time it’s Galaxy IC 5332”

We’ll be Building Self-Replicating Probes to Explore the Milky Way Sooner Than you Think. Why Haven’t ETIs?

An early NASA concept of an interstellar space probe. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory

The future can arrive in sudden bursts. What seems a long way off can suddenly jump into view, especially when technology is involved. That might be true of self-replicating machines. Will we combine 3D printing with in-situ resource utilization to build self-replicating space probes?

One aerospace engineer with expertise in space robotics thinks it could happen sooner rather than later. And that has implications for SETI.

Continue reading “We’ll be Building Self-Replicating Probes to Explore the Milky Way Sooner Than you Think. Why Haven’t ETIs?”

The Moon Could Have Gathered Some of its Water from the Earth’s Atmosphere

Our Moon is a fascinating world that has captivated us since time immemorial. Long before the first telescope was invented, ancient humans used the Moon as a calendar in the sky, with evidence that lunar timekeeping was around as early as 25,000, 30,000, and even 35,000 years before the present. Long before humanity had written language, lived in organized cities, and worshipped structured religions, the Moon was one of humanity’s first timepieces. It wasn’t until the telescope was invented that our Moon became an object of scientific curiosity, with the sketches by Galileo Galilei giving us a new perspective on our nearest celestial neighbor. As science advanced, so did our understanding of the Moon. While the Apollo missions were successful in teaching us about the geology of the Moon, it wasn’t until 2009 when the LCROSS impact probe onboard the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter deliberately crashed into a dark crater on the Moon’s south pole and detected 155 kilograms of water as it flew through the ejecta plume before ultimately crashing into the lunar surface.

Continue reading “The Moon Could Have Gathered Some of its Water from the Earth’s Atmosphere”

Traveling the Solar System with Pulsar Navigation

A pulsar with its magnetic field lines illustrated. The beams emitting from the poles are what washes over our detectors as the dead star spins.

A team of researchers at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign have found a way for travelers through the Solar System to work out exactly where they are, without needing help from ground-based observers on Earth. They have refined the pulsar navigation technique, which uses X-ray signals from distant pulsars, in a way similar to how GPS uses signals from a constellation of specialized satellites, to calculate an exact position .

Continue reading “Traveling the Solar System with Pulsar Navigation”

NASA’s Janus Mission is Going to Visit Two Binary Asteroids

Gravity is good for a lot of things. It brings objects closer together. Occasionally they crash into each other.  But sometimes two objects get locked in a unique gravitational dance that pairs them together. That dance can be short-lived, or it can last for billions of years. In some cases the objects are large (i.e. planets and moons), but they can also be quite small.

These small dancing objects are called binary asteroids, and we know very little about them, despite making up approximately 15% of all asteroids in the solar system.  That is until a newly greenlighted NASA mission, called Janus, will arrive at two different binary asteroids around 2026.

Continue reading “NASA’s Janus Mission is Going to Visit Two Binary Asteroids”

Toyota is Building a Pressurized Lunar Rover for Japan

An artist's illustration of a pressurized lunar vehicle. Image Credit: JAXA/Toyota

JAXA, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, is teaming up with the nation’s largest company to build a lunar rover. Toyota, the second largest automobile company in the world (only Volkswagen makes more cars) has signed a development deal with JAXA that will last three years. The goal? To design, build, test and evaluate prototypes for a pressurized, crewed lunar vehicle that runs on fuel-cells.

Continue reading “Toyota is Building a Pressurized Lunar Rover for Japan”

Drama In Low-Earth Orbit As LightSail2 Deploys Its Sails

LightSail 2 captured this image of Mexico on July 12th, 2019. The image is looking east across Mexico. The tip of the Baja Peninsula is on the left, and on the far right is Tropical Storm Barry. Image Credit: The Planetary Society

LightSail 2 has successfully deployed its solar sails. Shortly after 12:00 pm PST The Planetary Society tweeted that the sails were deployed, and that the spacecraft was sailing with sunlight. We can all enjoy their success and start to wonder how solar sails will fit into humanity’s plans for space exploration.

Update: This article has been updated with new images from LightSail2.

Continue reading “Drama In Low-Earth Orbit As LightSail2 Deploys Its Sails”

Time To Build A Venus Rover

The planet Venus, as imaged by the Magellan 10 mission. Credit: NASA/JPL
The planet Venus, as imaged by the Magellan 10 mission. The planet's inhospitable surface makes exploration extremely difficult. Credit: NASA/JPL

Venus is often described as being hell itself, because of its crushing pressure, acidic atmosphere, and extremely high temperatures. Dealing with any one of these is a significant challenge when it comes to exploring Venus. Dealing with all three is extremely daunting, as the Soviet Union discovered with their Venera landers.

Actually, dealing with the sulphuric rain is not too difficult, but the heat and the pressure on the surface of Venus are huge hurdles to exploring the planet. NASA has been working on the Venus problem, trying to develop electronics that can survive long enough to do useful science. And it looks like they’re making huge progress.

Scientists at the NASA Glenn Research Centre have demonstrated electronic circuitry that should help open up the surface of Venus to exploration.

The first color pictures taken of the surface of Venus by the Venera-13 space probe. Credit: NASA
The first color pictures taken of the surface of Venus by the Venera-13 space probe. The Venera 13 probe lasted only 127 minutes before succumbing to Venus’s extreme surface environment. Credit: NASA

“With further technology development, such electronics could drastically improve Venus lander designs and mission concepts, enabling the first long-duration missions to the surface of Venus,” said Phil Neudeck, lead electronics engineer for this work.

With our current technology, landers can only withstand surface conditions on Venus for a few hours. You can’t do much science in a few hours, especially when weighed against the mission cost. So increasing the survivability of a Venus lander is crucial.

With a temperature of 460 degrees Celsius (860 degrees Fahrenheit), Venus is almost twice as hot as most ovens. It’s hot enough to melt lead, in fact. Not only that, but the surface pressure on Venus is about 90 times greater than Earth’s, because the atmosphere is so dense.

To protect the electronics on previous Venus landers, they have been contained inside special vessels designed to withstand the pressure and temperature. But these vessels add a lot of mass to the mission, and make sending landers to Venus a very expensive proposition. So NASA’s work on robust electronics is super important when it comes to exploring Venus.

The team at the Glenn Research Centre has developed silicon carbide semiconductor integrated circuits (Si C IC) that are extremely robust. Two of the circuits were tested inside a special chamber designed to precisely reproduce the conditions on Venus. This chamber is called the Glenn Extreme Environments Rig (GEER.)

The GEER (Glenn Extreme Environments Rig) facility can recreate the conditions of any body in our Solar System. (No, not the Sun, obviously.) Image: NASA/Glenn Research Centre
The GEER (Glenn Extreme Environments Rig) facility can recreate the conditions of any body in our Solar System. (No, not the Sun, obviously.) Image: NASA/Glenn Research Centre

GEER is a special chamber that can recreate the conditions on any body in our Solar System. It’s an 800 Litre (28 cubic foot) chamber that can simulate temperatures up to 500° C (932° F), and pressures from near-vacuum to over 90 times the surface pressure of Earth. GEER can also simulate exotic atmospheres with its precision gas-mixing capabilities. It can mix very specific quantities of gases down to parts per million accuracy. For these tests, that means the unit had to reproduce an accurate recipe of CO2, N2, SO2, HF, HCl, CO, OCS, H2S, and H2O, down to very tiny quantities. And the tests were a success.

“We demonstrated vastly longer electrical operation with chips directly exposed — no cooling and no protective chip packaging — to a high-fidelity physical and chemical reproduction of Venus’ surface atmosphere,” Neudeck said. “And both integrated circuits still worked after the end of the test.”

In fact, the two circuits not only functioned after the test was completed, but they withstood Venus-like conditions for 521 hours. That’s more than 100 times longer than previous demonstrations of electronics designed for Venus missions.

A before (top) and after (bottom) image of the electronics after being tested in Venus atmospheric conditions. Image: NASA
A before (top) and after (bottom) image of the electronics after being tested in Venus atmospheric conditions. Image: NASA

The circuits themselves were originally designed to operate in the extremely high temperatures inside aircraft engines. “This work not only enables the potential for new science in extended Venus surface and other planetary exploration, but it also has potentially significant impact for a range of Earth relevant applications, such as in aircraft engines to enable new capabilities, improve operations, and reduce emissions,” said Gary Hunter, principle investigator for Venus surface electronics development.”

The chips themselves were very simple. They weren’t prototypes of any specific electronics that would be equipped on a Venus lander. What these tests showed is that the new Silicon Carbide Integrated Circuits (Si C IC) can withstand the conditions on Venus.

A host of other challenges remains when it comes to the overall success of a Venus lander. All of the equipment that has to operate there, like sensors, drills, and atmospheric samplers, still has to survive the thermal expansion from exposure to extremely high temperature. Robust new designs will be required in many cases. But this successful test of electronics that can survive without bulky, heavy, protective enclosures is definitely a leap forward.

If you’re interested in what a Venus lander might look like, check out the Venus Sail Rover concept.

Recovered SpaceX Falcon 9 Booster Headed Back to Port: Launch/Landing – Photos/Videos

SpaceX ASDS drone ship with the recovered Falcon 9 first stage rocket lurking off Port Canaveral waiting to enter the port. Copyright: Julian Leek

Recovered Falcon 9 first stage after drone ship landing following SpaceX launch of JCSAT-14 on May 6, 2016 from from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl.  Credit: SpaceX
Recovered Falcon 9 first stage after drone ship landing following SpaceX launch of JCSAT-14 on May 6, 2016 from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl. Credit: SpaceX

The SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage booster that successfully launched a Japanese satellite to a Geostationary Transfer Orbit (GTO) just 3 days ago and then nailed a safe middle of the night touchdown on a drone ship at sea minutes minutes later, is headed back to port and may arrive overnight or soon thereafter.

The 156 foot tall booster was spotted offshore earlier today while being towed back to her home port at Port Canaveral, Florida.

The SpaceX ASDS drone ship with the recovered Falcon 9 first stage rocket is lurking off Port Canaveral waiting to enter the port until after the cruise ships depart for safety reasons. Pictured above at 7:40 a.m.

The upgraded SpaceX Falcon 9 soared to orbit on May 6, roaring to life with 1.5 million pounds of thrust on a mission carrying the JCSAT-14 commercial communications satellite, following an on time liftoff at 1:21 a.m. EDT from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl.

To date SpaceX has recovered 3 Falcon 9 first stages. But this was the first one to be recovered from the much more demanding, high velocity trajectory delivering a satellite to GTO.

“First landed booster from a GTO-class mission (final spacecraft altitude will be about 36,000 km),” tweeted SpaceX CEO and founder Elon Musk.

Musk was clearly ecstatic with the result, since SpaceX officials had been openly doubtful of a successful outcome with the landing.

Barely nine minutes after liftoff the Falcon 9 first stage carried out a propulsive soft landing on an ocean going platform located some 400 miles off the east coast of Florida.

The drone ship was named “Of Course I Still Love You.”

The Falcon 9 landed dead center in the bullseye.

Check out the incredible views herein from SpaceX of the Falcon 9 sailing serenely atop the “Of Course I Still Love You.”

Base of Recovered Falcon 9 first stage with landing legs after drone ship landing following SpaceX launch of JCSAT-14 on May 6, 2016 from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl.  Credit: SpaceX
Base of Recovered Falcon 9 first stage with landing legs after drone ship landing following SpaceX launch of JCSAT-14 on May 6, 2016 from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl. Credit: SpaceX

Relive the launch through these pair of videos from remote video cameras set at the SpaceX launch pad 40 facility.

Video caption: SpaceX Falcon 9 launch of JCSAT-14 on May 6, 2016 from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Video caption: SpaceX Falcon 9 launch of JCSAT-14 on 5/6/2016 Pad 40 CCAFS. Credit: Jeff Seibert/AmericaSpace

The commercial SpaceX launch lofted the JCSAT-14 Japanese communications satellite to a Geostationary Transfer Orbit (GTO) for SKY Perfect JSAT – a leading satellite operator in the Asia – Pacific region.

The landing counts as nother stunning success for Elon Musk’s vision of radically slashing the cost of sending rocket to space by recovering the boosters and eventually reusing them.

Recovered Falcon 9 first stage stands upright after drone ship landing following SpaceX launch of JCSAT-14 on May 6, 2016 from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl.  Credit: SpaceX
Recovered Falcon 9 first stage stands upright after drone ship landing following SpaceX launch of JCSAT-14 on May 6, 2016 from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl. Credit: SpaceX

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Launch of SpaceX Falcon 9 carrying JCSAT-14 Japanese communications satellite to orbit on May 6, 2016 at 1:21 a.m. EDT from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl.  Credit: Julian Leek
Launch of SpaceX Falcon 9 carrying JCSAT-14 Japanese communications satellite to orbit on May 6, 2016 at 1:21 a.m. EDT from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl. Credit: Julian Leek

U.S. Air Force Certifies SpaceX for National Security Launches, Ending Monopoly

SpaceX Falcon 9 and Dragon blastoff from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on April 14, 2015 at 4:10 p.m. EDT on the CRS-6 mission to the International Space Station. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

SpaceX Falcon 9 is now certified for USAF launches. SpaceX Falcon 9 and Dragon blastoff from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on April 14, 2015 at 4:10 p.m. EDT on the CRS-6 mission to the International Space Station. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Story updated[/caption]

The U.S. Air Force announced Tuesday that they have certified SpaceX to launch the nations critical and highly valuable national security satellites on the firms Falcon 9 rocket, thereby breaking the decade old launch monopoly held by launch competitor United Launch Alliance (ULA). ULA is a joint venture owned by aerospace giants Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

The Air Force’s goal in approving the SpaceX Falcon 9 booster is aimed at drastically cutting the high cost of access to space by introducing competition in the awarding of military mission launch contacts. The prior contract involved a sole source $11 Billion “block buy” bid for 36 rocket cores from ULA in December 2013 which was legally challenged by SpaceX in April 2014, but eventually settled by SpaceX in an agreement with the USAF earlier this year.

Lieutenant General Samuel Greaves, Commander of the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC), announced the long awaited decision on Tuesday, May 26.

The certification milestone came after a grueling two year review process in which the Air Force invested more than $60 million and 150 people to thoroughly review all aspects of the Falcon 9 booster. The review was based on three successful flights by the Falcon 9 v1.1 which first launched in late 2013.

The purpose of certification is to assure that qualified launch providers could meet the challenge of safely, securely and reliably lofting expensive U.S. national security military missions to space and into their intended orbits with full mission capability that are critical for maintaining national defense.

“The SpaceX and SMC teams have worked hard to achieve certification,” said Greaves, Commander of the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC) and Air Force Program Executive Officer for Space, in a statement.

“And we’re also maintaining our spaceflight worthiness process supporting the National Security Space missions. Our intent is to promote the viability of multiple EELV-class launch providers as soon as feasible.”

And the competitive launch races “for award of qualified national security space launch missions” between SpaceX and ULA start very soon, within the next month says the USAF.

In June, the Air Force will issue a Request for Proposal (RFP) for GPS III launch services. ULA has three GPS launches in its manifest for 2015.

Of course SpaceX was overjoyed on hearing the certification news.

“This is an important step toward bringing competition to National Security Space launch, said Elon Musk, SpaceX CEO and Lead Designer.

‘We thank the Air Force for its confidence in us and look forward to serving it well.”

Until today, ULA has held a launch monopoly over military missions since the company was founded in 2006. ULA also launches many NASA science missions, but very few commercial satellites.

Thus the U.S. military and NASA provide the core of ULA’s business and the source of much of its income and profits.

SpaceX is suing the Air Force for the right to compete for US national security satellites launches using Falcon 9 rockets such as this one which successfully launched the SES-8 communications satellite on Dec. 3, 2013 from Pad 40 at Cape Canaveral, FL. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
SpaceX is now certified by the Air Force for the right to compete for US national security satellites launches using Falcon 9 rockets such as this one which successfully launched the SES-8 communications satellite on Dec. 3, 2013 from Pad 40 at Cape Canaveral, FL. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

“This is a very important milestone for the Air Force and the Department of Defense,” said Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James, in a statement.

“SpaceX’s emergence as a viable commercial launch provider provides the opportunity to compete launch services for the first time in almost a decade. Ultimately, leveraging of the commercial space market drives down cost to the American taxpayer and improves our military’s resiliency.”

Other military spacecraft in the future could involve vehicles such as the X-37B space plane which recently launched on an Atlas V, as well as weather satellites, signals intelligence and missile warning satellites and a range of top secret missions for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) that have been routinely launched by ULA with a 100% success rate to date.

USAF X-37B orbital test vehicle launches atop  United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on May 20, 2015 on OTV-4 mission. Credit: Alex Polimeni
USAF X-37B orbital test vehicle launches atop United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on May 20, 2015 on OTV-4 mission. Credit: Alex Polimeni

ULA’s stable of launchers includes the Atlas V and Delta IV families of vehicles. ULA is phasing out the Delta IV due to its high costs. Only the Delta IV Heavy will remain in service as required to launch the very heaviest satellites that cannot be accommodated by less powerful rockets.

ULA is also replacing the Atlas V with the partly reusable new Vulcan rocket, that will be phased in starting in 2019 using American-made engines from either Blue Origin or Aerojet Rocketdyne.

The Atlas V uses Russian made RD-180 engines, who’s use has become highly contentious since the deadly crisis in Ukraine erupted in 2014.

The ensuing threats of RD-180 engine embargoes and imposition of sanctions and counter sanctions imposed by the US and Russia have thus placed US national security at risk by being dependent on a rocket with foreign made engines whose future supply chain was uncertain.

U.S. Senator John McCain (R-AZ), Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has been highly critical of the ULA dependence on the Russian RD-180 engines and issued this statement in response to the Air Force announcement.

“The certification of SpaceX as a provider for defense space launch contracts is a win for competition, said McCain.

“Over the last 15 years, as sole-source contracts were awarded, the cost of EELV was quickly becoming unjustifiably high. I am hopeful that this and other new competition will help to bring down launch costs and end our reliance on Russian rocket engines that subsidizes Vladimir Putin and his cronies.”

A United Launch Alliance Atlas V 421 rocket is poised for blastoff at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station's Space Launch Complex-41 in preparation for launch of NASA's Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) science mission on March 12, 2015.  Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com
A United Launch Alliance Atlas V 421 rocket is poised for blastoff at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex-41 in preparation for launch of NASA’s Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) science mission on March 12, 2015. Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com

Overall the Air Force “invested more than $60 million and 150 people in the certification effort which encompassed 125 certification criteria, including more than 2,800 discreet tasks, 3 certification flight demonstrations, verifying 160 payload interface requirements, 21 major subsystem reviews and 700 audits in order to establish the technical baseline from which the Air Force will make future flight worthiness determinations for launch.”

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

SpaceX Falcon 9 and Dragon blastoff from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on April 14, 2015 at 4:10 p.m. EDT  on the CRS-6 mission to the International Space Station. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
SpaceX Falcon 9 and Dragon blastoff from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on April 14, 2015 at 4:10 p.m. EDT on the CRS-6 mission to the International Space Station. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com