Looking Forward: Science Stories to Watch for in 2014

BrightFutureThe year of 2013 was a rather big one in terms of technological developments, be they in the field of biomedicine, space exploration, computing, particle physics, or robotics technology. Now that the New Year is in full swing, there are plenty of predictions as to what the next twelve months will bring. As they say, nothing ever occurs in a vacuum, and each new step in the long chain known as “progress” is built upon those that came before.

And with so many innovations and breakthroughs behind us, it will be exciting to see what lies ahead of us for the year of 2014. The following is a list containing many such predictions, listed in alphabetical order:

Beginning of Human Trials for Cancer Drug:
A big story that went largely unreported in 2013 came out of the Stanford School of Medicine, where researchers announced a promising strategy in developing a vaccine to combat cancer. Such a goal has been dreamed about for years, using the immune system’s killer T-cells to attack cancerous cells. The only roadblock to this strategy has been that cancer cells use a molecule known as CD47 to send a signal that fools T-cells, making them think that the cancer cells are benign.

pink-ribbonHowever, researchers at Stanford have demonstrated that the introduction of an “Anti-CD47 antibody” can intercept this signal, allowing T-cells and macrophages to identify and kill cancer cells. Stanford researchers plan to start human trials of this potential new cancer therapy in 2014, with the hope that it would be commercially available in a few years time. A great hope with this new macrophage therapy is that it will, in a sense, create a personalized vaccination against a patient’s particular form of cancer.

Combined with HIV vaccinations that have been shown not only to block the acquisition of the virus, but even kill it, 2014 may prove to be the year that the ongoing war against two of the deadliest diseases in the world finally began to be won.

Close Call for Mars:
A comet discovery back in 2013 created a brief stir when researchers noted that the comet in question – C/2013 A1 Siding Springs – would make a very close passage of the planet Mars on October 19th, 2014. Some even suspected it might impact the surface, creating all kinds of havoc for the world’s small fleet or orbiting satellites and ground-based rovers.

Mars_A1_Latest_2014Though refinements from subsequent observations have effectively ruled that out, the comet will still pass by Mars at a close 41,300 kilometers, just outside the orbit of its outer moon of Deimos. Ground-based observers will get to watch the magnitude comet close in on Mars through October, as will the orbiters and rovers on and above the Martian surface.

Deployment of the First Solid-State Laser:
The US Navy has been working diligently to create the next-generation of weapons and deploy them to the front lines. In addition to sub-hunting robots and autonomous aerial drones, they have also been working towards the creation of some serious ship-based firepower. This has included electrically-powered artillery guns (aka. rail guns); and just as impressively, laser guns!

Navy_LAWS_laser_demonstrator_610x406Sometime in 2014, the US Navy expects to see the USS Ponce, with its single solid-state laser weapon, to be deployed to the Persian Gulf as part of an “at-sea demonstration”. Although they have been tight-lipped on the capabilities of this particular directed-energy weapon,they have indicated that its intended purpose is as a countermeasure against threats – including aerial drones and fast-moving small boats.

Discovery of Dark Matter:
For years, scientists have suspected that they are closing in on the discovery of Dark Matter. Since it was proposed in the 1930s, finding this strange mass – that makes up the bulk of the universe alongside “Dark Energy” – has been a top priority for astrophysicists. And 2014 may just be the year that the Large Underground Xenon experiment (LUX), located near the town of Lead in South Dakota, finally detects it.

LUXLocated deep underground to prevent interference from cosmic rays, the LUX experiment monitors Weakly Interacting Massive Particles (WIMPs) as they interact with 370 kilograms of super-cooled liquid Xenon. LUX is due to start another 300 day test run in 2014, and the experiment will add another piece to the puzzle posed by dark matter to modern cosmology. If all goes well, conclusive proof as to the existence of this invisible, mysterious mass may finally be found!

ESA’s Rosetta Makes First Comet Landing:
This year, after over a decade of planning, the European Space Agency’s Rosetta robotic spacecraft will rendezvous with Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. This will begin on January 20th, when the ESA will hail the R0setta and “awaken” its systems from their slumber. By August, the two will meet, in what promises to be the cosmic encounter of the year. After examining the comet in detail, Rosetta will then dispatch its Philae lander, equipped complete with harpoons and ice screws to make the first ever landing on a comet.

Rosetta_and_Philae_at_comet_node_full_imageFirst Flight of Falcon Heavy:
2014 will be a busy year for SpaceX, and is expected to be conducting more satellite deployments for customers and resupply missions to the International Space Station in the coming year. They’ll also be moving ahead with tests of their crew-rated version of the Dragon capsule in 2014. But one of the most interesting missions to watch for is the demo flight of the Falcon 9 Heavy, which is slated to launch out of Vandenberg Air Force Base by the end of 2014.

This historic flight will mark the beginning in a new era of commercial space exploration and private space travel. It will also see Elon Musk’s (founder and CEO of Space X, Tesla Motors and PayPal) dream of affordable space missions coming one step closer to fruition. As for what this will make possible, well… the list is endless.

spaceX-falcon9Everything from Space Elevators and O’Neil space habitats to asteroid mining, missions to the Moon, Mars and beyond. And 2014 may prove to be the year that it all begins in earnest!

First Flight of the Orion:
In September of this coming year, NASA is planning on making the first launch of its new Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle. This will be a momentous event since it constitutes the first step in replacing NASA’s capability to launch crews into space. Ever since the cancellation of their Space Shuttle Program in 2011, NASA has been dependent on other space agencies (most notably the Russian Federal Space Agency) to launch its personnel, satellites and supplies into space.

orion_arrays1The test flight, which will be known as Exploration Flight Test 1 (EFT-1), will be a  short uncrewed flight that tests the capsule during reentry after two orbits. In the long run, this test will determine if the first lunar orbital mission using an Orion MPCV can occur by the end of the decade. For as we all know, NASA has some BIG PLANS for the Moon, most of which revolve around creating a settlement there.

Gaia Begins Mapping the Milky Way:
Launched on from the Kourou Space Center in French Guiana on December 19thof last year, the European Space Agency’s Gaia space observatory will begin its historic astrometry mission this year. Relying on an advanced array of instruments to conduct spectrophotometric measurements, Gaia will provide detailed physical properties of each star observed, characterising their luminosity, effective temperature, gravity and elemental composition.

Gaia_galaxyThis will effectively create the most accurate map yet constructed of our Milky Way Galaxy, but it is also anticipated that many exciting new discoveries will occur due to spin-offs from this mission. This will include the discovery of new exoplanets, asteroids, comets and much more. Soon, the mysteries of deep space won’t seem so mysterious any more. But don’t expect it to get any less tantalizing!

International Climate Summit in New York:
While it still remains a hotly contested partisan issue, the scientific consensus is clear: Climate Change is real and is getting worse. In addition to environmental organizations and agencies, non-partisan entities, from insurance companies to the U.S. Navy, are busy preparing for rising sea levels and other changes. In September 2014, the United Nations will hold another a Climate Summit to discuss what can be one.

United-Nations_HQThis time around, the delegates from hundreds of nations will converge on the UN Headquarters in New York City. This comes one year before the UN is looking to conclude its Framework Convention on Climate Change, and the New York summit will likely herald more calls to action. Though it’ll be worth watching and generate plenty of news stories, expect many of the biggest climate offenders worldwide to ignore calls for action.

MAVEN and MOM reach Mars:
2014 will be a red-letter year for those studying the Red Planet, mainly because it will be during this year that two operations are slated to begin. These included the Indian Space Agency’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM, aka. Mangalyaan-1) and NASA’ Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) mission, which are due to arrive just two days apart – on September 24th and 22nd respectively.

mars_lifeBoth orbiters will be tasked with studying Mars’ atmosphere and determining what atmospheric conditions looked like billions of years ago, and what happened to turn the atmosphere into the thin, depleted layer it is today. Combined with the Curiosity and Opportunity rovers, ESA’s Mars Express,  NASA’s Odyssey spacecraft and the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, they will help to unlock the secrets of the Red Planet.

Unmanned Aircraft Testing:
A lot of the action for the year ahead is in the area of unmanned aircraft, building on the accomplishments in recent years on the drone front. For instance, the US Navy is expected to continue running trials with the X-47B, the unmanned technology demonstrator aircraft that is expected to become the template for autonomous aerial vehicles down the road.

X-47BThroughout 2013, the Navy conducted several tests with the X-47B, as part of its ongoing UCLASS (Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike) aircraft program. Specifically, they demonstrated that the X-47B was capable of making carrier-based take offs and landings. By mid 2014, it is expected that they will have made more key advances, even though the program is likely to take another decade before it is fully realizable.

Virgin Galactic Takes Off:
And last, but not least, 2014 is the year that space tourism is expected to take off (no pun intended!). After many years of research, development and testing, Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo may finally make its inaugural flights, flying out of the Mohave Spaceport and bringing tourists on an exciting (and expensive) ride into the upper atmosphere.

spaceshiptwo-2nd-flight-2In late 2013, SpaceShipTwo and passed a key milestone test flight when its powered rocket engine was test fired for an extended period of time and it achieved speeds and altitudes in excess of anything it had achieved before. Having conducted several successful glide and feathered-wing test flights already, Virgin Galactic is confident that the craft has what it takes to ferry passengers into low-orbit and bring them home safely.

On its inaugural flights, SpaceShipTwo will carry two pilots and six passengers, with seats going for $250,000 a pop. If all goes well, 2014 will be remembered as the year that low-orbit space tourism officially began!

Yes, 2014 promises to be an exciting year. And I look forward to chronicling and documenting it as much as possible from this humble little blog. I hope you will all join me on the journey!

Sources: Universetoday, (2), med.standford.edu, news.cnet, listosaur, sci.esa.int

Virgin’s Galactic’s Coming Space Flight

spaceshiptwo_flightNext year, Virgin Galactic is planning on mounting its first tourist spaceflight. This will involve SpaceShipTwo, the flagship of the fleet, taking six civilian passengers – including founder Richard Branson and his two adult children, Holly and Sam – into Near-Earth Orbit for the first time. And in true Bransonian fashion, he has arranged a major multimedia campaign in preparation for the event.

This consisted of signing a “multi-platform partnership” with the network NBCUniversal for it’s affiliates to transmit the flight all over the world. So far, the platforms for coverage include CNBC, MSNBC, NBCNews.com, Syfy and The Weather Channel. They also plan a “primetime special” on NBC on the launch’s eve, and to host a live event for three hours on NBC’s Today show.

Spaceshiptwo-580x256This past September, SpaceShipTwo conducted its second powered test flight, which consisted of a full-technical run through. This concluded with the deployment of its feathered wings, which allowed the ship to slow down and make a controlled descent. These were the latest in a long series of flights designed to test the ship’s engine, wings, landing mechanisms, and ability to glide.

Said Branson of the newly-announced partnership:

Virgin Galactic is thrilled that NBCUniversal will join us on our exciting first journey to space. In this first chapter of commercial space travel, we will help make space accessible and inspire countless more people to join us in the pursuit of space exploration and science innovation.

Lynx_spaceplane_mockupAlready, some 600 people have signed up for a ride aboard SpaceShipTwo once it’s making regular runs into orbit. What’s more, competitors have emerged to get a piece of the market, the most notable of which are XCOR Aerospace (run by Jeff Greason, a former member of the Rotary Rocket company) and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin.

Another curious media partnership is also being contemplated in anticipation of the maiden flight. This one comes from One Three Media, the company behind the Survivor series. Apparently, CEO Mark Burnett is looking to create a reality TV show where contenders will compete for a chance to win tickets aboard the space carrier.

spaceshiptwo-2nd-flight-2No indication has been given yet as to what sort of things contestants will do in order to win, or whether they have to go through something similar to astronaut training. But a recent press release from the studio stated the show would be a “groundbreaking, elimination competition series where everyday people compete for the ultimate prize”.

And according to Mark Burnett, it represents the culmination of a decade’s long dream:

For the past 10 years I have relentlessly pursued my dream of using a TV show to give an everyday person the chance to experience the black sky of space and look down upon mother Earth. Last year, I spent time in New Mexico at the state-of-the-art facility and last week [I] spent time in the Mojave desert with Sir Richard and his impressive team. We got to see the spaceship up close and hear of Sir Richard’s incredible vision of how Virgin Galactic is the future of private space travel. I am thrilled to be part of a series that will give the everyday person a chance to see space, and that NBC has come on board too so that viewers at home will have a first-class seat.

virgin_galactic_bransonNo telling on when this show might premiere, but it is the latest in a long series of attempts by Burnett to put a person into space. Back in 2000, he announced a deal with NBC to host a space reality show (Destination Mir) where the winner would visit the Russian space station. Burnett subsequently proposed another show that would have brought ‘N Sync guitarist Lance Bass to the International Space Station.

Due to various factors, such as lack of funding and the Russian Federal Space Agency choosing to deorbit their aging space station in 2001. But with Branson ready to send people into space, and with a transport mechanism that is far more affordable and accessible than space rockets, this latest reality space venture might just come to fruition.

The age of private space travel is dawning, friends. I sincerely hope I can afford a trip into space before I’m too old to go. It’s too soon for me to make a bucket list, but I know for a fact that I would like to know the feeling of weightlessness at least once before I die!

Source: universetoday.com, (2)

Space Tourism: The World View Balloon

near-space_balloonWhen the Space Age began, some five decades ago, there were many who predicted that commercial space flight would follow shortly thereafter. This included everything from passenger flights into space, orbital space stations, and even space tourism. Naturally, these hopes seem quite naive in hindsight, but recent events are making them seem feasible once more.

Consider Virgin Galactic, a commercial aerospace carrier that will begin taking passengers into Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) beginning next year. And there’s Inspiration Mars, a private company that wants to send a couple on a round trip to visit the Red Planet. And now, there’s World View Enterprises, a company that plans to send to start sending passengers on a near-space balloon ride beginning in 2016.

near-space_balloon1Based in Tucson, Arizona, World View is a start-up that is looking to entice people into the budding field of space tourism by offering people a chance to get a taste of space without actually going there. Going into space is defined as traveling 100 km (62 miles) from the Earth’s surface, whereas their balloon ride will take passengers to a height of 30 km (18.6 miles), where they will be treated to a spectacular view of the Earth

World View Enterprises recently obtained approval from the US Federal Aviation Administration for its proposed balloon experiences, which will cost US $75,000 a ride, and are projected to begin in 2016. Each flight will consist of two balloon pilots and up to six passengers, which will be contained within a cylindrical capsule that comes equipped with heating and its own air-supply.

near-space_balloon2According to the company’s plan, the capsule – which measures 6 meters in length and 3 in width (approx. 20 x 10 feet) – will be deployed below a parasail (used for recovery) and tethered to a 400,000 cubic meter (14 million cubic ft) helium balloon, which will provide the lift needed to bring the capsule and its occupants to 30 km in altitude or Low-Earth Orbit.

Might sound a little dangerous to some, but the FAA has determined that World View’s design meets the engineering and environmental challenges posed by Low-Earth Orbit. They stressed that the capsule be designed and tested as if it were going to have long-term exposure in space, even though it will not exceed altitudes much above 30 km, and assigned it a safety factor of 1.4 – the same as that required of manned space systems.

near-space_balloon5The flight itself is projected to last about four hours, with the ascent taking 1.5-2 hours. The capsule will then remain at an altitude of 30 km for about two hours, during which time the semi-space tourists will be free to move about the cabin and take in the view. Unfortunately, they will not experience weightlessness during this period.

That’s comes after, when the capsule is cut off from the balloon and begins to fall towards Earth. Once it gains enough speed, the parafoil will provide sufficient lift to slow the descent and bring the passengers in for a safe, controlled landing. Before touching down, the capsule will deploy a set of skids and lands much the same way a paraglider does.

near-space_balloon4All in all, the balloon ride being suggested by World View does appear to hit many of the key points on the space tourism agenda. These include seeing black sky and the curvature of the Earth, and having a view of the planet that only astronauts are ever treated to. That may very well add up to an experience that is as good as being in space without technically getting there.

The only question is, will enough passengers line up for an amazing day’s flight that costs a startling $75K? Only time will tell. One thing is fore sure though. The dream of space tourism appears to finally be upon us, though it is a few decades late in coming. Today’s dreams do tend to become tomorrow’s reality, though they sometimes take longer than expected.

And be sure to enjoy this promotional video from World View Enterprises showing their concept in action:


Sources: gizmag.com, fastcodesign.com,

News From Space: The Antares Rocket Launch!

antares_launch1Commercial space flight got a shot in the arm just two days ago thanks to the flawless launch of the privately developed Antares rocket from the NASA Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. On board was the first of many Cygnus craft, a commercial unmanned cargo resupply vehicle that is now making its way to the ISS in orbit. It was a day of firsts, and signaled the beginning of a new space race.

For starters, it was the first time the launchpad in Virginia was used, not to mention the maiden flight of a Cygnus craft. But perhaps most importantly, it was the first time in a long time that supplies and equipment were bound for the International Space Station from American soil. Since its cancellation in 2011, NASA’s space program has been forced to rely on the Russians and an aging fleet of Soyuz rockets to send astronauts and supplies into orbit.

spaceX_elonmuskAnd, as already noted, it was a big day for commercial space flight, since both the Antares and the Cygnus were produced by the Orbital Sciences Corporation. For some time now, SpaceX has been leading the charge to develop rockets and spacecraft for private commercial use. Now, with NASA awarding OSC contracts to restore America’s ability to mount resupply missions, it seems they might have some competition.

The “picture perfect” blastoff took place at 10:58 a.m. EDT on the morning  of Sept. 18 from Virginia and was witnessed by a large crowd of spectators. The launch was reported as being incredibly beautiful as the rockets two stage engines spewed intensely bright flames and send out reverberations that wowed the people watching and woke people who were still asleep in the nearby community of Chincoteague.

antares_deploymentAnother historic first that bears mentioning is the fact that this latest mission happens to be the heaviest cargo load ever delivered to the ISS by a commercial vehicle. And by awarding contracts for such missions to private companies, NASA hopes to be able to free more of its budget up for long-term missions. These include exploration beyond low earth orbit, getting people back to the Moon and beyond to deep space destinations including Asteroids and Mars.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden spoke glowingly of the launch in a statement and praised OSC for their role in making it happen:

Today marks a milestone in our new era of exploration as we expand the capability for making cargo launches to the International Space Station from American shores.  Orbital’s extraordinary efforts are helping us fulfill the promise of American innovation to maintain our nation’s leadership in space.

According to ongoing mission updates, the Cygnus spacecraft successfully unfurled its solar panels starting 1.5 minutes after separation from the second stage, which took place about 10 minutes after launch. Currently, Cygnus is traveling at 28,000 km/h (17,500 mph) and will rendezvous with the space station on Sunday, Sept. 22.

antares_launch2Once there, the cargo vessel will deliver about 590 kilograms (1,300 pounds) of cargo, including food, clothing, water, science experiments, spare parts and gear to the Expedition 37 crew. The flight, known as Orb-D1 is a demonstration mission to prove that Cygnus can conduct a complex series of maneuvers in space safely bringing it to the vicinity of the ISS.

And once the mission is complete and the supplies delivered, we can expect to be hearing about more missions like this one! Between SpaceX’s Dragon module, the Cygnus, and both companies ongoing rocket tests, space will is likely to become the new frontier where private enterprises carry out their endless dance of competition.

And of course, there are some cool videos of the launch to behold. So behold!

Time-lapse video of Antares deployment:


Antares launch:


Sources:
universetoday.com, (2)

News From Space… ShipTwo!

spaceshiptwo-2nd-flightVirgin Galactic’s founder Sir Richard Branson has been working tirelessly for over a decade now in the hopes of realizing the dream of privatized space travel. And earlier this month, his company once again made history with the second rocket-powered supersonic test flight of its SpaceShipTwo craft. And in the process, it broke its previous records for speed and altitude, bringing it that much closer to its first commercial flight.

The flight test took place last Thursday at 8:00 am PDT, when the SS2 took off slung beneath the WhiteKnightTwo (WK2) carrier aircraft from Virgin Galactic’s Mojave Air and Space Port in California. The SS2 was then released from the carrier at 14,000 meters (46,000 ft) and the rocket motor burned for 20 seconds, pushing the spacecraft to an altitude of 21,000 meters (69,000 ft) and a maximum speed of Mach 1.43 (1,752 km/h, 1,088 mph).

spaceshiptwo-2nd-flight-6According to the company, the tourism spacecraft went through its full technical mission profile in a single flight for the first time, including the deployment of its “feathering” re-entry mechanism at high altitude. This took place after engine shutdown and involved rotating the tail section to vertical, which slows the ship down and allows the shuttle to glide back home. The craft then landed in a controlled, unpowered glide at Mojave at 9:25 AM.

This flight builds on the success of the first rocket-powered supersonic flight that took place on April 29. Designed out of carbon composite, the space craft is powered by a hybrid rocket motor that uses solid rocket fuel and nitrous oxide as an oxidizer. Once test flights are complete, it will begin carrying six passengers on suborbital flights and will also have the option of deploying research equipment such as micro-satellites into Low-Earth Orbit (LEO).

spaceshiptwo-2nd-flight-1Naturally, the CEO and founder, Sir Richard Branson, chose to mark the occasion with some choice words:

We couldn’t be more delighted to have another major supersonic milestone under our belts as we move toward a 2014 start of commercial service. It was particularly thrilling to see for the first time today the whole elegant system in action during a single flight, including the remarkable feathering re-entry system. It was this safety feature more than anything else that originally persuaded us that the overall design of the system was uniquely fit for purpose. Everything we have seen today just confirms that view.

Next year, if all goes well, Virgin Galactic will be conducting its first commercial flights, ferrying passengers into low orbit where they will experience several minutes of weightlessness before gliding back to Earth. In this, they are joined by such groups as KLM, Golden Spike and SpaceX in attempting to create the first set of commercial space flights which will one day bring people to and from orbit, and possible even the Moon.

spaceshiptwo-2nd-flight-2And of course, Virgin Galactic was sure to capture the test flight on tape using a tail camera. It captures the engine burn, and then the near-vertical acceleration, as the craft puts planet Earth in its rear view and heads for atmo! Quite cool! Check it out:


Source: gizmag.com

News from Space: Dream Chaser Begins Testing

dream_chaserEver since their Space Shuttle program was forcibly shut down in 2011, NASA has been forced to look to the private sector to restore their ability to put human beings into orbit from American soil. This consists of providing the seed money needed for companies to develop a new race of “space taxis”.  One such program is the Dream Chaser, a reusable shuttle that will fly astronauts into low Earth orbit (LEO) and to the International Space Station (ISS).

Much like a standard Space Shuttle, the Dream Chaser is designed to launch atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket and land on a shuttle landing facility. And after lengthy periods of research and development, the Dream Chaser is now moving forward with a series of ground tests at NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center in California that will soon lead to dramatic aerial flight tests throughout 2013.

dream-chaser-testThis consisted of putting the shuttle together and then conducting a series of what’s known as “Pathfinding tow tests” on Dryden’s concrete runway. The purpose here is to validate the performance of the vehicles’ nose skid, brakes, tires and other systems to prove that it can safely land an astronaut crew after surviving the searing re-entry from Earth orbit. For the initial ground tests, the ship was pulled by a tow truck at 16 and 32 km/h (10 to 20 mph).

Later this month, the next leg of the test will consist of towing it up to speeds of 64 to 95 km and hour (40 to 60 mph). The next phases of testing will take place later this year in the form of airborne captive carry tests, where an Erickson Skycrane helicopter will fly the fuselage around to see how it holds up. Approach and Landing Tests (ALT) will follow to check the aerodynamic handling, which will consist of atmospheric drop tests in autonomous free flight mode.

dream-chaser-test1In an interview with Universe Today, Marc Sirangelo – Sierra Nevada Corp. vice president and SNC Space Systems chairman – spoke on record about the shuttle and where it is in terms of development:

It’s not outfitted for orbital flight. It is outfitted for atmospheric flight tests. The best analogy is it’s very similar to what NASA did in the shuttle program with the Enterprise, creating a vehicle that would allow it to do significant flights whose design then would filter into the final vehicle for orbital flight.

In short, the Dream Chaser has a long way to go, but the program shows great promise. And as already noted, they are not the only ones benefiting from this public-private agreement that seeks to develop commercial vehicles for the sake of kick starting space travel.

dream-chaser-dockedOther companies include Boeing and SpaceX, companies that were also awarded contracts under NASA’s Commercial Crew Integrated Capability Initiative, or CCiCap. All three have their own commercial vehicles under development, such as the Boeing CST-100, SpaceX’s Dragon, which are similarly designed to bring a crew of up to 7 astronauts to the ISS and docking with it for up to 6 months.

Dream_Chaser_launchBut of course, everything depends on NASA’s approved budget, which seems headed for steep cuts in excess of a billion dollars if a Republican dominated US House has its way.This is the third contract in NASA’s Phase 1 CCiCap contracts, who’s combined value is about $1.1 Billion and runs through March 2014. Phase 2 contract awards will eventually lead to actual flight units after a down selection to one or more of the companies. The first orbital flight test of the Dream Chaser is not expected before 2016 and could be further delayed if NASA’s commercial crew budget is again slashed by the Congress – as was done in the past few years.

But as William Gerstenmaier – NASA’s associate administrator for human exploration and operations in Washington – indicated in a statement, the larger goal here is one of repatriation. As it stands, US astronauts are totally dependent on Russia’s Soyuz capsule for rides to the ISS, which costs upwards of $70 million a trip. NASA hopes to change that by rekindling the “good old days” of space travel:

NASA centers around the country paved the way for 50 years of American human spaceflight, and they’re actively working with our partners to test innovative commercial space systems that will continue to ensure American leadership in exploration and discovery.

And I for one wish NASA luck. Lord knows thirty-years of post-Cold War budget cutbacks hasn’t been easy on them. And hitching rides into space above Cold War era rockets is not the best way of getting your astronauts into space either!

In the meantime, check out this concept video of the Dream Chaser in action, courtesy of the Sierra Nevada Corporation:


Source:
universetoday.com

News From Space…X!

spaceX_elonmuskForgive the pun, but it was just too easy! Yes, SpaceX is once again making news with its Grasshopper reusable rocket system, which set the record for highest altitude ascended. On its sixth jump, which took place on June 14th, the rocket made it to a height of 325 meters (1066 feet) above the Earth and remained airborne for a minute and 8 seconds.

With each jump and new record set, Grasshopper and its inventors are bringing the age of affordable, commercial space flight that much closer. Seeing as how the goal is to send a rocket into orbit it and bring it back in one piece, this latest milestone might sound modest. But a quick look at each successive jump clearly shows that the Vertical Takeoff Vertical Landing (VTVL) rocket is making serious progress, and in a short stretch of time.

spacex_grasshopperConsider the first jump which took place in September of 2012, where the rocket reached a height of 1.8 meters (6 feet) and remained aloft for three seconds. Sounds pretty meager, no? But less than two months later, the rocket was able to remain in the air for 8 seconds and reached a height of 5.4 meters (17.7 feet).

On its third run, performed in December of 2012, the rocket got 40 meters (131 feet) into the air, remained there for 29 seconds, and happened to be the first test flight where a cowboy mannequin was strapped to the rocket. On the fourth and fifth try, which were performed in March and April of this year, the rocket reached a height of 80 and then 250 meters (262 and 820 feet), remaining airborne for 34 and then 61 seconds.

Grasshopper-rocketThis not only confirms that the rocket’s progress is exponential when it comes to height, but that its thrust-to-weight ratio has been improving vastly. Another big milestone here was the fact that for the first time, the rocket made use of its full navigation sensor suite with the F9-R closed loop control flight algorithms.

In previous tests, the rocket relied on other rocket sensors which were not as accurate, but this time around, SpaceX was directly controlling the rocket based on these new sensor readings, a move which has increased the level of accuracy in sensing the distance between Grasshopper and the ground.

To quote Nietzsche: “He who would learn to fly one day must first learn to stand and walk.” At this rate, averaging for the total rate of increase, I’d say the Grasshopper should be reaching Low-Earth Orbit (2000 km above sea level) by its 11th or 12th jump. And using the same figures, I figure the jump will be taking place sometime in May 2014. Somebody ought to be organizing a pool!

Source: IO9.com, SpaceX.com