News from Space: Dream Chaser Airframe Unveiled

dream-chaser-dockedWith the cancellation of the Space Shuttle program, and the termination of NASA’s operations with the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos), NASA has been pushing ahead with several programs designed to restore their access to low Earth orbit and the International Space Station (ISS). One such program is the Dream Chaser, a joint venture between the Sierra Nevada Corporation and Lockheed Martin that aims to create a winged mini-shuttle.

Earlier this month, the program reached an important milestone when the composite airframe structure was unveiled at a joint press conference by Sierra Nevada Corporation and Lockheed Martin at the Fort Worth facility. The assembly of the airframe took place at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility (MAF) in New Orleans, where Lockheed Martin is busy fabricating the structural components for the composite structure.

Dream Chaser at autoclave FP141497 07_31_14From here, the completed components are shipped to Lockheed Martin’s Aeronautics facility in Fort Worth, Texas for integration into the airframe and assembly. Designed to be launched into orbit atop a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket and then fly back and land on its power, the Dream Chaser will carry a mix of cargo and up to a seven crewmembers to the ISS before landing on commercial runways anywhere in the world.

According to Mark N. Sirangelo, corporate vice president of Sierra Nevada’s Space Systems, the company chose to partner with Lockheed Martin because of its long history in the development of commercial aerospace technology:

As a valued strategic partner on SNC’s Dream Chaser Dream Team, Lockheed Martin is under contract to manufacture Dream Chaser orbital structure airframes… We competitively chose Lockheed Martin because they are a world leader in composite manufacturing, have the infrastructure, resources and quality control needed to support the needs of an orbital vehicle and have a proven track record of leading our nation’s top aviation and aerospace programs. Lockheed Martin’s diverse heritage coupled with their current work on the Orion program adds an extra element of depth and expertise to our program. SNC and Lockheed Martin continue to expand and develop a strong multi-faceted relationship.

dream-chaser-test1Dream Chaser measures about 9 meters (29 feet) long with a 7 meter (23 foot) wide wing span, and is about one third the size of the Space Shuttle Endeavor and all other NASA orbiters – which were retired beginning in 2011. Upon completion of the airframe manufacturing at Ft Worth, it will be transported to SNC’s Louisville, Colorado, facility for final integration and assembly.

SNC announced in July that they successfully completed and passed a series of risk reduction milestone tests on key flight hardware systems that brought the private reusable spacecraft closer to its critical design review (CDR) and first flight. The Sierra Nevada Corporation is now moving ahead with plans for the Dream Chaser’s first launch and unmanned orbital test flight in November of 2016, which will take place atop an Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida.

dream_chaserDream Chaser is among a trio of US private sector manned spaceships being developed with seed money from NASA’s Commercial Crew Program in a public/private partnership to develop a next-generation crew transportation vehicle to ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station by 2017 – a capability totally lost following the space shuttle’s forced retirement in 2011.

These include the SpaceX Dragon and Boeing CST-100 ‘space taxis’, which are also vying for funding in the next round of contracts to be awarded by NASA around September 2014. Between a reusable mini-shuttle, a reusable space capsule, and reusable rockets, NASA not only hopes to restore indigenous space capability, but to drastically cut costs on future space missions.

Commercial-Crew-vehicles_Ken-Kremer-

Source: universetoday.com

News From SpaceX: Falcon 9 Completes Second Test Flight

falcon-9-reusable-test2In yet another impressive feat from Elon Musk’s private space company, the Falcon 9 Reusable Rocket completed it’s second test on Friday April 2nd, 2014. In this latest test of the reusable rocket system, the Falcon 9 effectively quadrupled its height from its last test. Having reached 250 meters during its last test flight, the rocket now reached a full kilometer and then descended safely back to Earth and achieving a soft landing.

This comes just two weeks after SpaceX launched one of its Falcon 9’s on a supply mission to the ISS, which included the soft landing of its stage one rocket. Unfortunately, high sea waves prevented a boat from meeting the rocket on its ocean-based pad. And so, the rocket landed in the ocean, hovering for a few seconds before toppling into the sea. Still, the fact that the rocket was able to make it back to just above sea level was good news, and confirms that SpaceX is that much closer to the dream of reusability.

spacex-falcon-9-rocket-largeIn the coming months, SpaceX plans to conduct more tests. In addition to reaching higher altitudes, they will also be testing the rocket’s retractable landing legs, and working more with unpowered guidance. According to the description that came with the recently-released video of the 1000m test:

F9R test flights in New Mexico will allow us to test at higher altitudes than we are permitted for at our test site in Texas, to do more with unpowered guidance and to prove out landing cases that are more-flight like.

This is also good news for NASA, which officially announced the cessation of cooperation with the Russian Federal Space Agency in early April. While their inability to rely on Russian Soyuz rockets to send astronauts into orbit (and bring them home) has allowed NASA to apply greater pressure on the federal government to fund its Reusable Launch Vehicle (RLV) system. However, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin had a more mocking suggestion.

NASA_trampolineAfter initially joking that American astronauts would be left stranded on the ISS, he also recommended that NASA try using a trampoline to reach orbit. The joke was naturally irrelevant, since day-to-day operations involving the ISS are not going to be affected by these sanctions. Still, the inability to rely on Russian Soyuz’s in the near future will mean that US satellites – which are used for everything from GPS to spying – will be undeployable for the time being.

It also means that orbit conducted in Low-Earth Orbit will be complicated. As such, a reusable rocket system, be it NASA’s own or an external contractor’s (in this case, SpaceX) will give the US sanctions against Russia additional weight. It will also ensure that the dream of cost-effective space travel, which is intrinsic to everything from colonizing the Moon and Mars to establishing a Space Elevator and asteroid mining, will be become a reality in the not-too-distant future.

The sky is no longer the limit, people! And be sure to enjoy this video of the F9R 1000 meter test flight.


Source: 
space.IO9.com, (2)

Space Organizations Join the Hunt for Malaysian Jet

malaysia_missingplaneThe disappearance of Malaysian flight MH370, now into its eighth day, remains a mystery to investigators and the families of those who traveling aboard her. Since March 7th when it was first declared missing, the search for wreckage or any trace of what might have happened has produced little in the way of results or explanations, prompting numerous governments and private organizations to commit more in the way of technology and resources.

According to a report from the BBC, these have included the use of 42 sophisticated ships and 39 high-tech aircraft combing the waters according to the BBC. For example, listening devices are being lowered into the water to pick up the “ping” of the black box, and sophisticated MH60 Seahawk helicopters from the United States are employing Forward Looking Infra-red (FLIR) cameras that arm the searchers with night vision.

malaysia_plane_searchThis past Monday,  a crowdsourcing platform called Tomnod, along with parent company DigitalGlobe, launched a campaign to enlist the help of citizens to scour satellite images to search for the plane. On the following day, China followed that up by activating the International Charter on Space and Major Disasters. The goal of this charter is to enlist space data from 15 member organizations to provide assistance in the case of a “natural or technological disaster.”

The charter describes such a disaster as:

a situation of great distress involving loss of human life or large-scale damage to property, caused by a natural phenomenon, such as a cyclone, tornado, earthquake, volcanic eruption, flood or forest fire, or by a technological accident, such as pollution by hydrocarbons, toxic or radioactive substances.

malaysia_satimageNow that the charter has been activated, space scientists around the planet will enlist all available satellites to gather images from the suspected area in which flight MH370 disappeared. Upon activation, data normally starts coming in within 24 hours. The hope is that one of those images will pick up something that can direct search and recovery efforts, either by showing a crash sight or showing some trace of wreckage.

The charter has been activated 400 times in its history, but Tuesday represents the first time it was called into service to look for a missing aircraft. The only other transportation-related event for which it’s been used was to assist in gathering data after a train full of dynamite exploded in North Korea on April 23, 2004. It was most recently activated on February 13 to help with monitoring the Mount Kelud volcano explosion on the Indonesian island of Java.

malaysia_plane_seaPrior to all that, the International Charter on Space and Major Disasters was used exclusively to monitor flooding, forest fires, snowfalls, cyclones, oil spills and other damaging events around the world. It was also used to assist in recovery efforts from earthquakes, including the one that rocked Japan in March 2011 and caused a devastating tsunami and the meltdown of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear plant.

The charter, which began after Vienna’s Unispace III conference in 1999 with three agencies, has grown to its current membership of 15 organizations, with the Russian Federal Space Agency being the most recent to join in 2013. Other member organizations include the European Space Agency, the Korea Aerospace Research Institute and China’s National Space Administration. The US member organizations include the United States Geological Survey and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

With this latest commitment of resources, technology and personnel, perhaps the world may finally know what took place aboard Malaysian flight MH370, and the families of those aboard her can finally get some peace of mind.

Sources: news.cnet.com, bbc.com, theguardian.com

 

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)