New ‘Selfie’ MicroSatellite Captures Images of Chinese Space Station

Here’s a great new view of China’s Tiangong II space station, taken by a new ‘selfie’ satellite. The Banxing-2 satellite is about the size of a desktop printer and was released from the station on Sunday. It has been nicknamed the “Selfie Stick” by Chinese officials and is taking pictures of the station and the docked Shenzhou XI spacecraft. The Chinese astronauts who boarded the station last week aren’t just joining the selfie craze; the 25 megapixel camera with wide-angle and infrared imagers has a specific job.

“The companion satellite monitors the conditions of Tiangong II and Shenzhou XI all the time, which is helpful in detecting failures,” said Chen Hongyu, chief engineer of the satellite program and a researcher with the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Micro-satellite Innovation Institute.

The Banxing-2 microsatellite. Credit: China Daily.
The Banxing-2 microsatellite. Credit: China Daily.

The microsatellite as three solar panels, so can generate enough power to adjust its orbit to shoot pictures of the lab and spacecraft. Its predecessor, Banxing-1, accomplished the same mission for Shenzhou VII in 2008. The Chinese Academy of Sciences says the new model is smaller and has a higher capacity.

Now well into their 30-day mission, astronauts Jing Haipeng and Chen Dong boarded China’s second version of its “Heavenly Palace” last week. They launched Monday, October 17 from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the Gobi Desert on a Long March 2F rocket and Shenzhou-11 completed a fully automated approach and docking to Tiangong-2 on Tuesday.

During their mission, the two crew members will perform experiments from 14 different areas including biology, space life science and technological demonstrations. They have set up plant cultivation and growing experiments and have six silkworms on board for a student-based study to see how silkworms produce silk in microgravity. The crew is also doing medical testing on themselves using Tiangong II’s on board ultrasound equipment to scan their cardiovascular and pulmonary systems. They’ll also be checking for bone and muscle degradation and track any changes to their eyesight. NASA and ESA has discovered that the majority of astronauts doing long-duration space flights on the International Space Station have suffered various kinds of vision problems while in space, or upon their return.

This 30-day medium duration mission is China’s longest space mission to date, and the main task of the Tiangong crew is to help prepare for longer future missions on a larger, modular space station that, according to reports, China hopes to launch by 2018.

Further reading: Chinese Academy of Sciences, Spaceflight 101.

President Obama Puts US All In For Mars

In the waning days of his presidency, Barack Obama has made a bold statement in favor of the US getting to Mars. Obama didn’t mince any words in his opinion piece written for CNN. He said that America’s next goal in space is “…sending humans to Mars by the 2030s and returning them safely to Earth, with the ultimate ambition to one day remain there for an extended time.”

President Obama has long been a proponent of a strong presence in space for the US, and of the science and technology that supports those efforts. He has argued for healthy NASA budgets in his time, and under his administration, NASA has reached some major milestones.

“Last year alone, NASA discovered flowing water on Mars and evidence of ice on one of Jupiter’s moons, and we mapped Pluto — more than 3 billion miles away — in high-resolution,” Obama said. He also mentioned the ongoing successful hunt for exoplanets, and the efforts to understand asteroids.

Some of his work in support of space and science in general has been more symbolic. His annual White House Science Fairs in particular. He was the first president to hold these fairs, and he hosted 6 of them during his 8 years in office.

Presidents go different directions once they leave office. Some keep a low profile (Bush Jr.), some get targeted for assassination (Bush Sr.), and some become advocates for humanitarian efforts and global peace (Jimmy Carter.) But Obama made it clear that his efforts to promote America’s efforts in space won’t end when his presidency ends. “This week, we’ll convene some of America’s leading scientists, engineers, innovators and students in Pittsburgh to dream up ways to build on our progress and find the next frontiers,” Obama said.

In his piece, Obama gave a laundry list of the USA’s achievements in space. He also pointed out that “Just five years ago, US companies were shut out of the global commercial launch market.” Now they own a third of that market. And, according to Obama, they won’t stop there.

In 2010 he set a goal for American space efforts: to reach Mars by the 2030s. “The next step is to reach beyond the bounds of Earth’s orbit. I’m excited to announce that we are working with our commercial partners to build new habitats that can sustain and transport astronauts on long-duration missions in deep space.” He didn’t elaborate on this in his opinion piece, but it will be interesting to hear more.

Other presidents have come out strongly in favor of efforts in space. The first one was Eisenhower, and Obama mentioned him in his piece. Eisenhower is the one who created NASA in 1958, though it was called NACA (National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics) at the time. This put America’s space efforts in civilian control rather than military.

President Kennedy got the Apollo program off the ground in 1961. Image: White House Press Office (WHPO)
President Kennedy got the Apollo program off the ground in 1961. Image: White House Press Office (WHPO)

President Kennedy asked Congress in 1961 to commit to the Apollo program, an effort to get a man on the Moon before the 60s ended. Apollo achieved that, of course, but with only a few months to spare. Kennedy’s successor, President Lyndon Johnson, was a staunch supporter of NASA’s Apollo Program, especially in the wake of disaster.

In 1967 the entire Apollo 1 crew was killed in a fire while testing the craft on its launch pad. The press erupted after that, and Congress began to question the Apollo Program, but Johnson stood firmly in NASA’s corner.

Like some other Presidents before him, Obama has always been a good orator. That was in full view when he ended his piece with these words: “Someday, I hope to hoist my own grandchildren onto my shoulders. We’ll still look to the stars in wonder, as humans have since the beginning of time.”

The focus has really been on Mars lately, and with Obama’s continued support, maybe humans will make it to Mars in the next decade or two. Then, from the surface of that planet, we can do what we’ve always done: continue to look to the stars with a sense of wonder.

ESA Prepares Revolutionary Air Breathing Rocket Engine

The SABRE (Synergistic Air-Breathing Rocket Engine) could revolutionize access to space. Image: Reaction Engines

If new rocket engines being developed by the European Space Agency (ESA) are successful, they could revolutionize rocket technology and change the way we get to space. The engine, called the Synergistic Air-Breathing Rocket Engine (SABRE), is designed to use atmospheric air in the early flight stages, before switching to conventional rocket mode for the final ascent to space. If all goes well, this new air-breathing rocket could be ready for test firings in about four years.

Conventional rockets have to carry an on-board oxidizer such as liquid oxygen, which is combined with fuel in the rocket’s combustion chamber. This means rockets can require in excess of 250 tons of liquid oxygen in order to function. Once this oxygen is consumed in the first stages, these used up stages are discarded, creating massive waste and expense. (Companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin are developing re-usable rockets to help circumvent this problem, but they’re still conventional rockets.)

Conventional rockets carry their own oxygen because its temperature and pressure can be controlled. This guarantees the performance of the rocket, but requires complicated systems to do so. SABRE will eliminate the need for carrying most on-board oxygen, but this is not easy to do.

SABRE’s challenge is to compress the atmospheric oxygen to about 140 atmospheres before introducing it into the engine’s combustion chambers. But compressing the oxygen to that degree raises its temperature so much that it would melt the engines. The solution to that is to cool the air with a pre-cooling heat exchanger, to the point where it’s almost a liquid. At that point, a turbine based on standard jet engine technology can compress the air to the required operating temperature.

This means that while SABRE is in Earth’s atmosphere, it uses air to burn its hydrogen fuel, rather than liquid oxygen. This gives it an 8 x improvement in propellant consumption. Once SABRE has reached about 25 km in altitude, where the air is thinner, it switches modes and operates as a standard rocket. By the time it switches modes, it’s already about 20% of the way into Earth orbit.

Like a lot of engineering challenges, understanding what needs to be done is not the hard part. Actually developing these technologies is extremely difficult, even though many people just assume engineers will be successful. The key for Reaction Engines Ltd, the company developing SABRE, is to develop the light weight heat exchangers at the heart of the engine.

Heat exchangers are common in industry, but these heat exchangers have to cool incoming air from 1000 Celsius to -150 Celsius in less than 1/100th of a second, and they have to do it while preventing frost from forming. They are extremely light, at about 100 times lighter than current technology, which will allow them to be used in aerospace for the first time. Some of the lightness factor of these new heat exchanges stems from the wall thickness of the tubing, which is less than 30 microns. That’s less than the thickness of a human hair.

Reaction Engines Limited says that these heat exchangers will have the same impact on aerospace propulsion systems that silicone chips had on computing.

A new funding agreement with the ESA will provide Reaction Engines with 10 million Euros for continued development of SABRE. This will add to the 50 million Pounds that the UK Space Agency has already contributed. That 50 million Pound investment was the result of a favorable viability review of SABRE that the ESA performed in 2010.

In 2012 the pre-cooler, a vital component of SABRE, was successfully tested at Reaction Engines facility in Oxfordshire, UK. Image: ESA/Reaction Engines
In 2012 the pre-cooler, a vital component of SABRE, was successfully tested at Reaction Engines facility in Oxfordshire, UK. Image: ESA/Reaction Engines

IN 2012, the pre-cooler and the heat exchangers were tested. After that came more R&D, including the development of altitude-compensating rocket nozzles, thrust chamber cooling, and air intakes.

Now that the feasibility of SABRE has been strengthened, Reaction Engines wants to build a ground demonstrator engine by 2020. If the continued development of SABRE goes well, and if testing by 2020 is successful, then these Air Breathing rocket engines will be in a position to truly revolutionize access to space.

In ESA’s words, “ESA are confident that a ground test of a sub-scale engine can be successfully performed to demonstrate the flight regime and cycle and will be a critical milestone in the development of this program and a major breakthrough in propulsion worldwide.”

Bring it on.

Saturn V’s New Mission Is To…Mississippi?

Looking at the business end of the Saturn V as it gets moved towards the barge that will transport it to Mississippi. Image: Infinity Science Center.

Tourist attractions can be pretty hokey. In the part of Canada where I’m from, one town boasts the “largest hockey stick in the world.” I’m not kidding. You can see it when you drive by. But Mississippi is getting what may be one of the world’s greatest tourist attractions: a Saturn V rocket, or the first stage of one, anyways.

Obviously, this is more than just a tourist attraction. This is an historic science exhibit of epic proportions. This Saturn V is the rocket that was supposed to launch Apollo 19 to the Moon in 1973, until that trip was cancelled.

For 38 years, this Saturn V has been at its home at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans, where it was built more than 40 years ago. But now, it’s found a new home at the Stennis Space Center, about 77 km. (48 miles) away. And getting there is quite a journey.

The heart of this journey is a 64 km. (40 mile) trip through the Intercoastal Waterway, and up the Pearl River. Not only that, but it had to be loaded onto a barge to start the trip, and unloaded once it arrived.

The Saturn V on its way to its new home at the Infinity Science Center in Mississippi. Image: Infinity Science Center.
The Saturn V on its way to its new home at the Infinity Science Center in Mississippi. Image: Infinity Science Center.

The actual home of the Saturn V will be the Infinity Science Center, which is a non-profit science outreach organization that has partnered with NASA, and is located next to the Stennis Space Center in Mississippi. And people there are proud and excited to be a part of this.

“There’s a saying that if you wanted to get to the moon, you had to go through south Mississippi first,” said John Wilson, executive director for INFINITY Science Center. “Our goal with this Saturn V first stage exhibit is to educate our guests on our region’s critical role in space exploration and bring to life the ingenuity of the men and women who built, transported, tested and flew the machines that took us to worlds beyond our own.”

There’s a lot of history behind the Saturn V. It was developed to support NASA’s Apollo program to land men on the Moon. The Saturn V was launched 13 times between 1966 and 1973. It still retains its status as the world’s most powerful rocket, though its end will reign soon, thanks to NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) and SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy.

This Saturn V was supposed to carry Apollo 19 on its way to the Moon until that missions was cancelled. One of the would-be crew members of Apollo 19, Fred Haise, was also a crew member on the ill-fated Apollo 13. Fred Haise is now on the Board of Directors at the Saturn’s new home, the Infinity Science Center. I can’t imagine how pleased he is to have his Saturn V coming home.

The Saturn V is a three stage rocket. The section being moved and exhibited is the first stage, known as the S-IC. It’s 42 meters (138 ft.) long and 10 meters (33 ft.) in diameter. This first stage had five massive F-1 engines which produced more than 7.5 million pounds of thrust.

The engines combined and burned liquid oxygen and kerosene for about 2.5 minutes. At that point, the rocket would be 61 km (38 miles) above Earth. Then, empty of fuel and with its job done, it would fall back towards Earth and burn up. But this one was built before its mission was cancelled, which is why its available for display.

The Infinity Science Center has 72,000 square feet of space, and has over 50 years of NASA history on display. Over 65,000 guests visit each year. That number is sure to rise, once the Saturn V comes home.

Elon Musk Is Sending Humans To Mars In 2024

Elon Musk has announced ambitious plans to send humans to Mars by 2024. Image: Artist's drawing of the Dragon capsule at Mars. SpaceX.

Do you get the feeling that Elon Musk likes making bold announcements?

Every space enthusiast’s favorite billionaire-turned-space-entrepreneur has just announced that he hopes his company, SpaceX, will send humans to Mars in 2024. If this sounds outrageous, you’re not keeping up with developments in commercial space. If this sounds a little bit ambitious, you’re probably right. But ambition is what Musk is all about.

“I think, if things go according to plan, we should be able to launch people probably in 2024, with arrival in 2025,” Musk said.

Musk, of course, is the Paypal co-founder who went on to start the Tesla electric car company, and SpaceX, the private space company. SpaceX has achieved a lot in its short time, including developing the Falcon re-usable rocket and the Dragon delivery and re-supply craft. With an even more powerful rocket in development, the Falcon Heavy, it’s fair to say that Musk has a track record of delivering on ambitious projects.

Musk’s announcement, at the Code Conference 2016 in Los Angeles, is definitely exciting news. It comes on the heels of an announcement earlier this spring stating that SpaceX will send a Dragon capsule to Mars in 2018, albeit one with no personnel on board. Musk founded SpaceX in 2002 with the goal of advancing the technologies required to establish a human colony on Mars, so everything seems to be going according to plan.

But a colony needs supplies, and with that in mind Musk also announced the intention of sending a craft to Mars every two years, in order to establish a supply line.

“The basic game plan is we’re going to send a mission to Mars with every Mars opportunity from 2018 onwards,” Musk said Wednesday night. “They occur approximately every 26 months. We’re establishing cargo flights to Mars that people can count on for cargo.”

“That’s what’s necessary to create a self-sustaining, or a growing, city on Mars,” he added.

Of course, there’s lots of work to be done yet. Currently, there is no rocket powerful enough for a mission like this. The most powerful rocket ever built was the Saturn V, used to get the Apollo mission to the Moon. That was 50 years ago.

An artist's interpretation of NASA's Space Launch System Block 1 configuration with an Orion vehicle. Image: NASA
An artist’s interpretation of NASA’s Space Launch System Block 1 configuration with an Orion vehicle. Image: NASA

NASA’s Space Launch System will have the power for a Mars mission, but that’s a ways away, and they probably won’t be giving SpaceX one. SpaceX has developed the Falcon rocket, and are working on the Falcon Heavy, but it won’t be enough to establish and maintain a presence on Mars. Still, this obstacle is anything but insurmountable, even though there has been no announcement on the building of this required rocket.

This whole endeavour will be enormously expensive, of course. But with a growing customer base for SpaceX, including the US military, NASA, and commercial communications customers, it seems like the money will be there.

As for the timeline, Musk acknowledges that it is a fairly aggressive one. “When I cite a schedule, it’s actually a schedule I think is true,” Musk said. “It’s not some fake schedule I don’t think is true. I may be delusional. That is entirely possible, and maybe it’s happened from time to time, but it’s never some knowingly fake deadline ever.”

The announcement itself sounds so simple. But Musk knows, as does everyone else involved in planning these kinds of missions, that there is an enormous amount of complex detail behind it all. The food required, the energy needed, and all of the other things that a sustained human presence on Mars will require in order to succeed, are all waiting to be addressed. Musk plans to address some of these details in September at the International Astronautical Congress in Guadalajara, Mexico.

We've been dreaming about a Mars colony for a long time, as this lovely retro drawing shows. Will SpaceX finally give us one? Image: NASA
We’ve been dreaming about a Mars colony for a long time, as the lovely retro drawing shows. Will SpaceX finally give us one? Image: NASA

Musk generates a lot of headlines when he makes these announcements. That’s as it should be. But there are other plans to reach Mars, too.

NASA is planning to get to Mars, but they’re going about it differently. They plan on using their SLS and the Orion to explore what’s called cis-lunar space, near the Moon, to test deep space operations, life support systems, solar-electric thrusters, and habitats. All of this activity could start as soon as 2021, and would support an eventual round-trip mission to Mars in the 2030s.

For a long time, it seemed that a mission to Mars was out of reach, off the table, and nobody was really talking about it. Now, we have two separate programs aiming toward an eventual mission to Mars.

Could this be the new space race? But instead of capitalism versus communism, as in the original space race, it’s government versus private?

In the end, it won’t really matter. We just want someone to get there. And we want an established presence. A colony.

Our survival may depend on it.

Launch Of World’s Largest Rocket Postponed

Mission art for NROL-37. The Delta-IV Heavy kind of looks like three cigarettes. Credit: United Launch Alliance

Next weekend’s launch of the Delta-4 Heavy has been postponed. The launch, which was to take place at Cape Canaveral, has been delayed due to unspecified payload issues. The launch is for the National Reconnaissance Office, a fairly secretive branch of the U.S. Government that’s in charge of the nation’s spy satellites. As such, they aren’t revealing too many details about the launch, or the postponement.

The Delta-4 Heavy rocket is a combination of three booster cores from the Delta Medium. Each one of these cores is a liquid hydrogen-fuelled engine that forms the Delta-4 Medium’s first stage. They’re mounted together to make a trio of engines, capped with a cryogenic upper stage.

The Delta-4 Heavy weighs 725000 kg (1.6 million lbs.) when it’s fully fuelled. It’s 71.6 meters (235 ft.) tall, and when it’s ignited it unleashes a whopping 2.1 million lbs. of thrust.

A Delta-4 Heavy blasting off in 2013.
A Delta-4 Heavy blasting off in 2013.

This configuration makes it the USA’s largest rocket, and it carries critical payloads for the government. These include not only spy satellites, but also an un-crewed test flight of the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle.

The cancelled mission, named NROL-37, was supposed to lift an Orion 9 satellite into orbit. Orion satellites are signal interception satellites, and are placed in geo-stationary orbits to collect radio emissions. One of the Orion satellites is believed to be “… the largest satellite in the world,” according to Bruce Carlson, NRO Director. This probably refers to the size of the satellites antenna, which is over 100m (330ft.) in diameter.

The Delta-4 Heavy (D4H) is considered the largest rocket in the world. The D4H can lift a whopping 28,790 kg into Low Earth Orbit (LEO.) Contemporaries like the Ariane 5 (ECA & ES versions) can lift 21,000 kg into LEO.

It won’t be the most powerful rocket for much longer though. The upcoming Falcon Heavy from SpaceX will lift an enormous 54,400 kg into LEO. Also being developed is the US Space Launch System (SLS), which, in its Block2 configuration, will lift 130,700 kg. The Chinese are in on the most powerful rocket game too, with their Long March 9 rocket. Under development now, it is projected to lift 130,000 kg into LEO, just a shade less than the SLS.

Oddly enough, the old Saturn V could lift 140,000 kg, putting all its successors to shame. The Saturn V was developed for the Apollo Program, and was also used to launch Skylab. Saturn V was in use from 1967 to 1973. To date, the Saturn V is the only rocket capable of transporting human beings beyond LEO.

A Saturn IV launching the historic Apollo 11 mission. Image: NASA/Michael Vuijlsteke. Public Domain image.
A Saturn IV launching the historic Apollo 11 mission. Image: NASA/Michael Vuijlsteke. Public Domain image.

As for the cancelled launch, no date has been set yet for the next launch. Once it is launched, it will mark the 9th D4H configuration to fly, and the 32nd Delta 4 launch since 2002. It will also be the 6th time the D4H has launched for the NRO.

Universe Today’s Ken Kremer is at Cape Canaveral for this launch, and will report on it, and no doubt provide some stunning photos. Check back with us to see Ken’s coverage.

Blue Origin Will Shoot Itself In The Foot On Purpose

New Shepard's crew capsule is seen descending with its parachutes deployed. The capsule's landing is cushioned by firing rockets after the parachutes have done their job. Image: Blue Origin

Blue Origin, the builder of the New Shepard re-usable rocket, has announced plans for the fourth flight of the rocket. With a recent successful launch and landing in their pocket, the company is anticipating another similar result. But this time, something will be done differently.

This time around, New Shepard will be launched and landed normally, but the crew capsule will be tested with an intentionally failed parachute. Blue Origin is promising an “exciting demonstration,” and in an email said they will be “demonstrating our ability to safely handle that failure scenario.”

Though no date has yet been set for this gimped-parachute demonstration, we are looking forward to it.

In previous tests, the crew capsule performed maneuvers that characterized its aerodynamics and reduced what are called ‘model uncertainties.’ Greater predictability is what these test flights are designed to achieve. Obviously, too many question marks are not good.

As Jeff Bezos, head of Blue Origin, said in an email, “One of the fundamental tenets of Blue Origin is that the safest vehicle is one that is robust and well understood. Each successive mission affords us the opportunity to learn and improve our vehicles and their modeling.”

The company also shared news of the construction of additional test cells at its facility in West Texas. These cells were announced in October, and now one of the cells has been commissioned. This cell “supports the development of the pre-burner start and ignition sequence timing” according to Bezos.

A new test cell has been commissioned at the Blue Origin facility in Texas. Image: Blue Origin
A new test cell has been commissioned at the Blue Origin facility in Texas. Image: Blue Origin

Bezos also touted the benefits of privately-funded endeavours, saying “…one of the many benefits of a privately funded engine development is that we can make and implement decisions quickly. We made the decision to build these two new test cells as a team in a 10 minute discussion.” He added, “Less than three weeks later we were pouring concrete and now we have an operating pressure fed test cell 7 months later.”

It’s clear that privately-funded initiatives can have more flexibility than governmental initiatives. They don’t face the same budgetary wrangling that organizations like NASA do. But, they don’t command the same resources that NASA does.

Companies like Blue Origin an SpaceX are very innovative and are leading the way in reusable rockets. If Blue Origin can make the crew capsule survivable in a failed parachute scenario, as the next test aims to do, then commercial space flight will benefit. Private trips to space, which are one of Blue Origin’s goal, will also become more and more attainable.

The New Shepard launching from its facility in West Texas. Image: Blue Origin
The New Shepard launching from its facility in West Texas. Image: Blue Origin

Hawking Supports Tiny Spacecraft To Alpha Centauri

Artist’s impression of the planet around Alpha Centauri B. Credit: ESO

We know that Earth will die.

Even if we beat global warming, and survive long enough to face and survive the next ice age, Earth will still die. Even if we build a peaceful civilization, protect the planet from asteroids, fight off mutant plagues and whatever else comes our way, life on Earth will die. No matter what we do, the Sun will reach the end of its life, and render Earth uninhabitable.

So reaching for the stars is imperative. What sounds unrealistic to a great many people is a matter of practicality for people knowledgeable about space. To survive, we must have more than Earth.

A project launched by billionaire Yuri Milner, and backed by Mark Zuckerberg, intends to send tiny spacecraft to our nearest stellar neighbour, the Alpha Centauri system. With an expert group assembled to gauge the feasibility, and with the support of eminent cosmologist Stephen Hawking, this idea is gaining traction.

Stephen Hawking thinks reaching out to the stars is more than hyperbole: it's essential to the survival of the human species. He's smart. We should listen to him.
Stephen Hawking thinks reaching out to the stars is more than dreamy space talk: it’s essential to the survival of the human species. He’s smart. We should listen to him.

The distance to the Centauri system is enormous: 4.3 light years, or 1.34 parsecs. The project plans to use lasers to propel the craft, which should mean the travel time would be approximately 30 years, rather than the 30,000 year travel time that current technology restricts us to.

Of course, there are still many technological hurdles to overcome. The laser propulsion system itself is still only a nascent idea. But theoretically it’s pretty sound, and if it can be mastered, should be able to propel space vehicles at close to relativistic speeds.

There are other challenges, of course. The tiny craft will need robust solar sails as part of the propulsion system. And any instruments and cameras would have to be miniaturized, as would any communication equipment to send data back to Earth. But in case you haven’t been paying attention, humans have a pretty good track record of miniaturizing electronics.

Though the craft proposed are tiny, no larger than a microchip, getting them to the Alpha Centauri system is a huge step. Who knows what we’ll learn? But if we’re ever to explore another solar system, it has to start somewhere. And since astronomers think it’s possible that the Centauri system could have potentially habitable planets, it’s a great place to start.

April 12, 1961: The First Human in Space

Yuri Gagarin, the first human to break free of Earth's gravity and enter space. Credit: Russian Archives

On April 12th, 1961, the first human being broke free of the gravity bond with Earth, and orbited the planet.

Though most everyone is familiar with the American Apollo astronauts who walked on the Moon, what it took to get there, and the “One small step…” of Neil Armstrong, fewer people are familiar with Yuri Gagarin, the Soviet cosmonaut who was the first human in space. He orbited Earth in his Vostok 1 spacecraft for 108 minutes.

Gagarin became an international celebrity at the time. He received the USSR’s highest honor, the Hero of the Soviet Union. Quite an honor, and quite an achievement for someone who, as a child, survived the Nazi occupation of Russia by living in a tiny mud hut with those members of his family who were not deported for slave labour by the Germans.

The Space Race between the USA and the USSR was in full swing at the time of Gagarin’s flight, and only one month after Gagarin’s historic journey, American astronaut Alan Shepard reached space. But Shepard’s journey was only a 15 minute sub-orbital flight.

Gagarin only has one space flight to his credit, aboard the Vostok 1 in 1961. He did serve as back-up crew for the Soyuz 1 mission though. Gagarin was a test pilot before becoming a cosmonaut, and he died while piloting a Mig-15 fighter jet in 1968.

Space travel in our age is full of ‘firsts.’ It’s the nature of our times. But there can only ever be one first person to leave Earth, and that accomplishment will echo down the ages. Scores of people have been into space now. Their accomplishments are impressive, and they deserve recognition.

But this day belongs to Yuri Gagarin.

It’s Going To Be A Blast! First RS-25 Flight Engine Test Set For March

RS-25 engine #2059 being delivered to the test stand at Stennis Space Center. Image: NASA/SSC.

NASA is about to reach another milestone in the development of its Space Launch System (SLS.) The SLS is designed to take humans on future deep space missions, and the heart of the system is the RS-25 engine. March 10th will be the first test of this flight-model engine, which will be the most powerful rocket in the world, once in its final configuration.

SLS is the future of space flight for NASA. It’s planned uses include missions to Mars and to an asteroid. The rockets for the system have to be powerful, and they have to have a proven track record. The RS-25 fits the bill: they are a high-performance system that has seen much use.

The  RS-25 has been used on over 135 shuttle missions, and they have seen over 1 million seconds of hot-fire time during ground testing. For the SLS, four RS-25s will be used to generate over 2 million pounds of thrust, and they will operate in conjunction with two solid rocket boosters.

“This year is all about collecting the data we need to adapt these proven engines for SLS’s first flight,” says Steve Wafford, the SLS Engines Manager. The team conducted a series of tests on a developmental RS-25 engine last year, but this is the first one that will fly.

Ronnie Rigney is the RS-25 project manager at the Stennis Space Center, where the tests are being conducted. “Every test is important, but there really is a different energy level associated with flight engines. It’s hard to describe the feeling you get knowing you’re going to see that engine lift off into the sky one day soon. It’s a very exciting time for all of us here,” said Rigney.

The SLS will be built in 3 stages, called blocks:

  • Block 1 will have a 70 metric ton lift capability.
  • Block 1B will be more powerful for deeper missions and will have a 105 metric ton lift capability.
  • Block 2 will add a pair of solid or liquid propellant boosters and will have a 130 metric ton lift capability.

Each of these blocks will use 4 RS-25 engines, and in its Block 2 configuration it will be the most powerful rocket in the world.

Engine #2059 is more than just a test engine. It will be used on the second SLS exploration mission (EM2), which will carry 4 astronauts into lunar orbit to test the SLS spacecraft.

“You can’t help but be excited about the test on A-1 (test stand,) especially when you realize that the engines that carried us to the moon and that carried astronauts on 135 space shuttle missions were tested on this very same stand. We’re just adding to a remarkable history of space exploration,” said Stennis Space Center Director Rick Gilbrech.

The team at Stennis feels the characteristic enthusiasm that NASA is known for. “We’re not just dreaming of the future. We’re enabling it to happen right now,” said Rigney.

Though the March 10th test is definitely a milestone, there’s still lots more work to do. Testing on RS-25 engines and flight controllers will continue, and in 2017, testing of the core stage will take place. 4 RS-25 engines will be tested at the same time.

That will be quite a sight.