Aerospace Travel: Los Angeles to Tokyo in One Hour

spaceshiptwo_flightGiven my busy schedule of late, some stories have been sitting in my stack for some time and I haven’t been able to write about them. But one’s like this are too cool to pass up, so here’s a belated acknowledgement. It seems that Virgin Galactic, having now demonstrated its ability to conduct aerospace tourism, has decided to enter into phase two of its plans for the future: aerospace travel!

In the scenario they are proposing, their planes would fly customers from Los Angeles to Tokyo, and the transit would take one hour. The takeoff system would be similar to the midair launch the company uses now with the SpaceShipTwo. Basically, a large plane flies the spacecraft off the ground, drops it in midair, a hybrid rocket engine ignites, and the spacecraft ascends into lower orbit.

spaceshiptwo-2nd-flight-2A system like this would allow patrons to fly from the West Coast to Japan in an hour, or from the United Kingdom to Australia in two hours. This is according to statements made by Virgin Galactic’s CEO, George Whitesides, back in September at a company event at New York City’s Museum of Natural History:

You can imagine a SpaceShipThree or a SpaceShipFour going outside the atmosphere, then coming back down outside an urban area and landing. We don’t have to accept the status quo. We can imagine a vehicle using liquid oxygen or liquid hydrogen to get us across the Pacific in an hour. You could do that.

For those following Branson’s exploits, this announcement should come as no surprise. For years, he has been attempting to create a supersonic airline of his own. But when a paradigm-shifting idea like “point-to-point suborbital space transportation” becomes possible, he began to sets his sights a little higher (so to speak).

Spaceshiptwo-580x256Naturally, there are a few things that need to be worked out and tested before that’s possible, but it’s entirely within the realm of possibility. In fact, the European Space Agency has been researching the idea and claimed that SpaceShipOne and SpaceShipTwo are the most promising space launch mechanisms they’ve seen to date.

Naturally, there is the nagging question of cost. If aerospace travel does become feasible, who exactly will be able to afford it? So far, Virgin Galactic’s suborbital spaceflight have attracted hundreds of customers, but at a cost of $250,000 per head. It seems unlikely that these same people would pay a quarter of a million dollars just to travel halfway around the world. And some experts maintain that the industry will fail strictly because of the costs involved.

space-trip-klmDerek Webber, is one such person. As the executive director of Spaceport Associates, he wrote a paper in 2008 that explored the idea:

Credible market studies have not been done, or at least published. The optimum technical design has not been established. The ground infrastructure is not in place… Price levels are uncertain. It is not even clear whether such flights are best characterized as tourism or as transportation; whether the passengers would be primarily tourists or business persons on urgent trips.

Nevertheless, these doubts are doing nothing to stem the flow of investment and research being made by aerospace organizations and companies. For years, KLM Royal Dutch Airlines – the national air carrier of the Netherlands – has been developing a rocket-powered sub-orbital craft of its own. California-based XCOR Aerospace also has the Lynx – a hypersonic plane that could fly between New York and Tokyo in just 90 minutes.

XCORReaction Engines Limited is also developing the Skylon hypersonic engine for commercial spacecraft, much in the same way that Boeing and NASA are  developing the X-37B space plane. While these efforts are aimed at creating reusable spacecraft that could deploy satellites and deliver crew and supplies into orbit, they are also laying the groundwork for commercial transportation that takes people into orbit.

Meanwhile, DARPA and the US Marine Corps have been working on developing their own point-to-point rockets for delivering supplies and people for roughly a decade now and the Federal Aviation Administration’s 2010 report noted that:

[the] potential for the rapid global transport of passengers and the fast distribution of goods and services make point-to-point transportation an attractive space technology concept worth exploiting.

So while a price breakdown may be lacking, and the expected costs limiting, the technology is still in its infancy and it seems likely that the future of transportation lies in space. Beyond rapid transit and space tourism, it may very well be how airlines ferry people to and from their destinations in the not-too-distant future.


News from Aerospace: XS-1 Experimental Spaceplane

northrop-grumman-xs-1-spaceplaneThe race to produce a new era or reusable and cost-effective spacecraft has been turning out some rather creative and interesting designs. DARPA’s XS-1 Spaceplane is certainly no exception. Developed by Northrop Grumman, in partnership with Scaled Composites and Virgin Galactic, this vehicle is a major step towards producing launch systems that will dramatically reduce the costs of getting into orbit.

Key to DARPA’s vision is to develop a space-delivery system for the US military that will restore the ability of the US to deploy military satellites ingeniously. In a rather ambitious twist, they want a vehicle that can be launched 10 times over a 10-day period, fly in a suborbital trajectory at speeds in excess of Mach 10, release a satellite launch vehicle while in flight, and reduce the cost of putting a payload into orbit to US$5 million (a tenth of the current cost).

XS-1_1Under DARPA contracts, Boeing, Masten Space Systems, and Northrop Grumman are working on their own versions of the spaceplane. The Northrop plan is to employ a reusable spaceplane booster that, when coupled with an expendable upper stage, can send a 1360 kgs (3,000 pounds) spacecraft into low Earth orbit. By comping reusable boosters with aircraft-like operations on landing, a more cost-effective and resilient spacecraft results.

In flight, the Northrop version of the XS-1 will take advantage of the company’s experience in unmanned aircraft to use a highly autonomous flight system and will release an expendable upper stage, which takes the final payload into orbit. While this is happening, the XS-1 will fly back to base and land on a standard runway like a conventional aircraft, refuel, and reload for the next deployment.

Spaceshiptwo-580x256Northrop is working under a $3.9 million phase one contract with DARPA to produce a design and flight demonstration plan that will allow the XS-1 to not only act as a space launcher, but as a testbed for next-generation hypersonic aircraft. Meanwhile Scaled Composites, based in Mojave, will be in charge of fabrication and assembly while Virgin Galactic will handle commercial spaceplane operations and transition.

Doug Young, the vice president of missile defense and advanced missions at Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems, had this to say about the collaboration:

Our team is uniquely qualified to meet DARPA’s XS-1 operational system goals, having built and transitioned many developmental systems to operational use, including our current work on the world’s only commercial spaceline, Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo. We plan to bundle proven technologies into our concept that we developed during related projects for DARPA, NASA and the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory, giving the government maximum return on those investments.

space_elevator2Regardless of which contractor’s design bears fruit, the future of space exploration is clear. In addition to focusing on cutting costs and reusability, it will depend heavily upon public and private sector collaboration. As private space companies grab a larger share of the space tourism and shipping market, they will be called upon to help pick up the slack, and lend their expertise to more ambitious projects.

Examples abound, from putting satellites, supplies and astronauts into orbit, to landing settlers on Mars itself. And who knows? In the foreseeable future, NASA, Russia, China, the ESA and Japan may also be working hand-in-hand with transport and energy companies to make space-based solar power and a space elevator a reality!


Buzz Aldrin: Let’s Go to Mars!

Apollo11_Aldrin1This past weekend was the 45th anniversary of the Moon Landing. To mark that occasion, NASA mounted the @ReliveApollo11 twitter campaign, where it recreated every moment of the historic mission by broadcasting updates in “real-time”. In addition to commemorating the greatest moment in space exploration, and one of the greatest moments in history, it also served to draw attention to new efforts that are underway.

Perhaps the greatest of these is one being led by Buzz Aldrin, a living-legend and an ambassador for current and future space missions. For decades now, Aldrin has been acting as a sort of elder statesman lobbying for the exploration of the cosmos. And most recently, he has come out in favor of a mission that is even grander and bolder than the one that saw him set foot on the Moon: putting people on Mars.

mars_spaceXmissionIt’s no secret that NASA has a manned mission planned for 2030. But with space exploration once again garnering the spotlight – thanks in no small part to commercial space companies like SpaceX and Virgin Galactic – Aldrin is pushing for something even more ambitious. Echoing ideas like Mars One, his plan calls for the colonization of Mars by astronauts who would never return to Earth.

To be sure, the spry 84 year-old has been rather busy in the past few years. After going through a very public divorce with his wife 0f 23 years in January of last year, he spent the past few months conducting a publicity blitz on behalf of the 45th anniversary of Apollo 11. In between all that, he has also made several appearances and done interviews in which he stressed the importance of the Martian colonization project.

Mars_OneA few months ago, Aldrin wrote an op-ed piece for Fast Company about innovation and the need for cooperation to make a new generation of space exploration a reality. During a more recent interview, which took place amidst the ongoing crisis in the Ukraine, he once again stressed the importance of cooperation between the United States, Russia, China, and their respective space programs.

As he told Fast Company in the interview:

I think that any historical migration of human beings to establish a permanent presence on another planet requires cooperation from the world together. That can’t be done by America competing with China… Just getting our people back up there is really expensive! We don’t compete but we can do other things close by with robots, which have improved tremendously over the past 45 years (since Apollo 11). You and I haven’t improved all that much, but robots have. We can work together with other nations in design, construction, and making habitats on both the near side and far side of Mars. Then when we eventually have designs, we’ll have the capacity to actually build them.

SLS_launchSimilarly, Aldrin took part in live Google Hangout with’s managing editor Tariq Malik and executive producer Dave Brody. This took place just eight days before the 25th anniversary of the Landing. During the broadcast, he discussed his experiences as an astronaut, the future of lunar exploration, future missions to Mars and beyond, and even took questions via chatwindow on Google+’s webpage.

At this juncture, its not clear how a colonization mission to Mars would be mounted. While Mars One is certainly interested in the concept, they (much like Inspiration Mars) do not have the necessary funding or all the technical know-how to make things a reality just yet. A possible solution to this could be a partnership program between NASA, the ESA, China, Russia, and other space agencies.

terraformingSuch ideas did inform Kim Stanley Robinson’s seminal novel Red Mars, where an international crew flew to the Red Planet and established the first human settlement that begins the terraforming process. But if international cooperation proves too difficult, perhaps a collaboration between commercial space agencies and federal ones could work. I can see it now: the Elon Musk Martian Dome; the Richard Branson Habitat; or the Gates colony…

With that in mind, I think we should all issue a prayer for international peace and cooperation! And in the meantime, be sure to check out the video of the Google Hangout below. And if you’re interested in reading up on Aldrin’s ideas for a mission to Mars, check out his book, Mission to Mars: My Vision for Space Exploration, which is was published by National Geographic and is available at Amazon or through his website.


News from Space: First Couple to go to Mars!

marsJane Poynter and Taber MacCallum are a pretty interesting couple. Like most, they plan trips together to new and exciting destinations. But unlike most, they plan to go to Mars, and they just might see their dream come true. Twenty years ago, they founded the private space company Paragon Space Development Corporation, with the aim of finding the most feasible way to send two people on a round-trip flyby of the Red Planet.

And now, after many years of planning, they may finally get to see it come to fruition. The only problem is, the window for this launch – in 2021 when planet Earth and Mars will be in alignment – is fast approaching. And a number of technical and logistical issues (i.e. how to shield themselves against deadly radiation, how to store their waste, how much food, water, and air to bring) still need to be resolved.

Inspiration_Mars (2)The mission – called Inspiration Mars and spearheaded by millionaire space tourist Dennis Tito – is the most ambitious of Paragon’s many projects. The company is also one of the country’s leading designers of life support systems and body suits for extreme environments, and they are currently developing a vehicle for commercial balloon trips to the stratosphere and technology for private moon landings.

But they have the most grandiose hopes for Mars. They believe that sending the first humans into the orbit of another planet could ignite a 21st century “Apollo moment” that will propel American students back into the sciences and inspire young innovators. Beyond that, and in advance of NASA’s proposed 2030 manned mission to Mars, it might just inspire a full-scale colonization effort.

Photograph by John de DiosThe couple’s drive to explore space was born in a giant glass dome near Tuscon, Arizona called Biosphere 2 in the early 90s. For two years (between 1991 and 1993), eight people – including Poynter and MacCallum – lived inside this dome as part of a prototype space colony. The eccentric, privately funded science experiment contained miniature biomes that mimicked Earth’s environments.

This included a jungle, desert, marshland, savannah and an ocean all crammed into an area no larger than two and a half football fields. The crew subsisted on a quarter-acre agricultural plot and went about their lives while medical doctors and ecologists observed from outside. All went relatively smoothly until, 16 months into the experiment, crew members began suffering from severe fatigue and sleep apnea.

Mars_OneThey discovered that the dome’s oxygen content had substantially dropped and, when one member fell into a state of confusion in which he could not add simple numbers, decided to refill the dome with oxygen, breaking the simulation of space-colony self-sufficiency. The project was deemed a failure by many, with Time Magazine going as far as to name it one of the 100 worst ideas of the century.

But the crew persisted for their full two-year trial and, if nothing else, emerged intimately aware of the mental traumas of prolonged isolation—crucial wisdom for anyone seriously considering traveling to another planet. As Poynter described it, the challenges were numerous and varied:

Some of the easier ones to get your head around are things like depression and mood swings—that’s kind of obvious. Weird things are things like food stealing and hoarding.

Mars_simulationThe more severe symptoms were similar to the delusions reported by early 20th century explorers who hallucinated while trekking for months through the featureless white expanse of Antarctica. She describes one instance in which she was standing in the sweet potato field about to harvest greens to feed the Biosphere 2 goats when she suddenly felt as if she had stepped through a time machine:

I came out the other side and was embroiled in a very fervent argument with my much older brother. And what was so disconcerting about it was that it really was hallucinatory. It was like I could smell it, feel it. It was very weird.

Six months into Biosphere 2, the couple began to think about life after the experiment and channeled their waning energy into a business plan. They wanted to build on the skills and ecological knowledge they were accruing during the experiment, while also playing off Biosphere 2’s space-oriented goals, and finally landed on building life support systems for an eventual trip to Mars.

Earth_&_Mir_(STS-71)MacCallum blogged about these plans while still living inside the dome, and managed to sign up Lockheed Martin aerospace engineer Grant Anderson as a co-founder, and signed legal papers with Poynter to incorporate Paragon. After Biosphere 2 project, both began working with a group from NASA to test an ecological experiment on the Russian Space Station MIR.

Then in December 2012, Paragon teamed up with another commercial space flight company named Golden Spike to build a space suit, thermal control, and life support technologies for commercial trips to the Moon aimed to launch in 2020. In December 2013, they named former astronaut and personal friend Mark Kelly as the director of flight crew operations on World View, an effort to bring tourists on a balloon ride to the middle of the stratosphere by 2016.

near-space_balloon5In short, Poynter and MacCallum have their fingers in just about every commercial space venture currently on the table outside of SpaceX and Virgin Galactic, of course. Over the past two decades, their company has grown to employ about 70 engineers and scientists and is still growing today. Their focus is on creative teamwork, hoping to foster the kind of innovative spirit needed to make space missions possible.

Still, despite Paragon’s best efforts and accomplishments, many do not believe their ambitions to send a human couple to Mars by the 2020s will pan out. Former NASA astronaut Thomas Jones is one such person, who said in an interview with WIRED that he thinks that humans won’t reach Mars orbit until the 2030s, and will struggle to do so without the financial and infrastructural support of NASA.

mars-mission1Originally, Dennis Tito hoped to finance the project entirely independently, using crowd-sourced funds and philanthropy. The original goal was also to get the project off the ground by 2017, when Earth and Mars would align in such a way that a rocket could slingshot to and from Mars in just 501 days. But with further analysis, Tito and Paragon realized they did not have the resources or money to pull off the mission by 2017.

They identified another planetary alignment in 2021 that would allow for a slightly-longer 580-day trip, but they still doubt they can achieve this without a bit of government support. According to McCallum:

There was really no way that we could find to practically use existing commercial rockets. We were hoping we could pull together a mission using existing hardware, but you just don’t get to go to Mars that easy.

During recent hearings with NASA, Tito explained that he would need roughly $1 billion over the next four or five years to develop the space launch system and other aspects of the mission. NASA was not readily willing to agree to this and they put the issue on hold. But regardless of whether Inspiration Mars is successful in 2021, Jones believes these commercial space efforts will help stir momentum and public interest in space.

oriontestflightAll of this would be great for NASA, which is beholden to public opinion and still looking to Congress to allocate the money needed to new infrastructure and fund future missions. Ergo, Paragon’s involvement in an array of different space endeavors that embed space in the American consciousness could improve their chances of getting Inspiration Mars off the ground. Or as he put it:

I think it is going to lead to an explosion of ideas of how we can use space to make a buck, and that’s all to the good. And so if these companies can develop a track record of success, and people have greater confidence that they can personally experience space, then it may become more relevant to our society and country, and then the U.S. may have a broader base of support for funding for NASA.

At the end of last year, the team successfully completed the major components of the life support system for Inspiration Mars and did a full test of all the major systems together in the lab. They recycled urine, made oxygen, and removed carbon dioxide from the system – all the things they would need to do to keep a crew alive for an Inspiration Mars mission.

Poynter_MacCallum_Portrait-330And MacCallum believes a trip to Mars that would use these life support systems could inspire the next great generation of innovators, much as the Apollo missions inspired the current generation of innovators and astronauts. McCallum turned five on July 20th, 1969 – the day that Apollo 11 landed on the Moon, and credits that historic event for inspiring him to take an interest in space and enter the Biosphere 2 project.

And though they hadn’t originally intended to be the couple that would take part in the Inspiration Mars mission, they have indicated that they would be willing to throw their hats into the ring. After all, they meet the basic requirements for the mission, being a physically fit middle-aged couple, and the Biosphere 2 project lent them some experience living in isolation.

Mars_Earth_Comparison-580x356But most important to the couple is the idea of being able to call back to students on Earth and describe the experience. As he described it, watching footage of the Pale Blue Dot drift away and the Red Planet’s drift closer would be the most amazing thing ever for a child to behold:

That would have completely blown my mind as a middle schooler. And we would have 500 days to have these conversations with students all around the world.

Of that, I have little doubt. And even if Inspiration Mars does not get off the ground (metaphorically or literally), it has hardly the only private space venture currently in the works. For example, Elon Musk and his commercial space firm SpaceX has made incredibly progress with the development of the reusable-rocket system. And Mars One, another crowdfunded venture, is still in the works and aiming to send volunteers on a one-way trip by 2024.

No telling how and when the first human beings will walk on the Red Planet. But at this juncture, it seems like a foregone conclusion that not only will it be happening, but within our lifetimes. And while we’re waiting, be sure to check out the Inspiration Mars video below. I can attest to it being quite… inspiring 😉


Space Tourism: World View Balloon Aces First Test

space-tourism-balloon-23Late last year, a new space tourism company emerged that proposed using a high-tech balloon ride to take passengers higher than they’ve ever been. The company quickly earned FAA approval for its audacious plan to take tourists on five hour near-space rides. And late last month, the company successfully completed its first round of tests, and in the process broke the record for the highest parafoil flight.

The company launched the test flight some three weeks ago from Roswell, New Mexico using a balloon which was roughly one third the size of that planned for passengers flight. It carried a payload of about 204 kg (450 lb), which is one-tenth the weight of what the company expects will be a full passenger load. The flight was the first time all the components were tested together, reaching a record-breaking altitude of 36,500 m (120,000 ft).

space-tourism-balloon-10Though components of the experience have been tested in the past, this marks the first time all elements of the spaceflight system were tested together. It was a huge success and a major milestone for the company. The company hopes to be able to commence passenger rides by 2016, once they’ve completed all testing to make sure their equipment and methods are safe.

Based on their FAA filings, the company has said that it will launch its rides from Spaceport American in the New Mexican desert. However, CEO Jane Poynter has recently said that no final decision has actually been made in this regard. Although the balloon does not technically lift its passengers into outer space – which is defined as a distance of 100 km (62 miles) from the Earth’s surface – it will certainly make for an unforgettable experience.

space-tourism-balloon-20For the cost of $75,000, customers will be taken to an altitude of 32 km (20 miles). From there, they will be able to see the curvature of the Earth, and at a fraction of the price for Virgin Galactic’s $200,000 rocket-propelled trip. The ride will consist of a capsule large enough for passengers to walk around in will being lifted well above the troposphere, thanks to a giant balloon containing 400,000 cubic meters of helium.

Their space balloon is not at all dissimilar to the one used by daredevil Felix Baumgartner when he broke the record for high-altitude skydiving roughly two years ago. In order to return back to Earth, the balloon will cut away from the capsule, and then a parafoil will allow it to land safely as a paraglider, deploying skids on which to land. Alongside other space-tourism ventures, the latter half of this decade is likely to be an exciting time to be alive!

Be sure to check out the company’s website by clicking here. And in the meantime, enjoy this company video showing the test flight:


The Future of Currency: Bitcoin Hitting the Streets

bitcoinFor those familiar with digital currencies, the name Bitcoin ought to ring a bell. Developed back in 2009, this “cryptocurrency” – i.e. it uses cryptography to control the creation and transfer of money – was created as a form of online payment for products and services. Since that time, it has become the subject of scrutiny, legislative bans, volatile pricing, and a hailed as a hardinger of the coming age of “distributed currency”.

Unlike precious metals or more traditional forms of currency, which hold value because they are backed by a country or are used to manufacture goods, Bitcoin is only buoyed by market demand. There are only 12.3 million virtual Bitcoins in circulation and those “coins” are traded through a Peer-to-Peer computer network, much as people used to share music files.

bitcoin1What’s especially interesting is the fact that the creator of this new form of currency remains unknown. It is assumed that it originated with a programer from Japan, due to the fact that its first mention came in a 2008 paper published under the pseudonym “Satoshi Nakamoto”. It became operational roughly a year later with the release of the first open source Bitcoin client and the issuance of the first physical bitcoin.

And in an interesting and personally-relevant development, it now seems that a Bitcoin ATM is coming to my old hometown of Ottawa. In this respect, the nation’s capitol is joining other major cities around the globe as municipalities that dispense the crypto currency, in spite of the fact that it is still not recognized by any national banking institutions, or financial regulating bodies.

future_money_bitcoinWhat’s more, the publicly-traded cryptocurrency has seen its stock go through repeated highs and lows over the past few years, being subject to both bubbles and price drops as countries like India and China prohibited its use. But with these machines hitting the streets, a trend which began back in November with the distribution of Robocoin ATMs, there is speculation that the digital currency might just be here to stay.

Part of the appeal of cryptocurrencies is that they allow for anonymity, hence why bitcoin has been linked to a number of illegal activities, such as on the shuttered drug marketplace Silk Road. And because its value is strictly tied to speculators, and not backed by any tangible measure or authority, speculators are able to ratchet up demand and push the stock value higher.

future_money2But Bitcoin is also starting to be accepted as a mainstream form of payment for U.S.-centric sites like OkCupid and WordPress. And back in October of 2013, China’s web giant Baidu accounced that it would start accepting Bitcoin payments for a firewall security service it sells. And though the Chinese government put the brakes on Bitcoin exchanges by December, the number of mainstream institutions opening up its coffers to it is growing.

These include Richard Branson’s private space tourism company Virgin Galactic, the Sacramento Kings, the e-commerce giant Paypal, and, a major online retailer. And popular use is also growing, as evidenced by the visualization below which shows downloads of bitcoin client software since 2008, broken down by different operating systems.

bitcoin_globalWhat the graphic shows is quite indicative. All over the world, particularly in developed countries and areas of economic growth – the Eastern US, Europe, Brazil, Argentina, Russia, Sub-Saharan Africa, India, China, Australia and Southeast Asia – the Bitcoin software is being downloaded and used to oversee online exchanges in good and services.

And ultimately, those who believe in the service and choose to invest in it are doing so based on the promise that it will someday streamline monetary transactions and free the world from the financial manipulation of big government and big banks, breakdown the financial walls between nations, and remake the worldwide economy. In short, it will breakdown centralized economies and allow a “distributed economy” to takes its place.

bitcoin_popmapAdmittedly, the service is still flawed in a number of respects. For example, people who chose to collect bitcoins in the past were dissuaded from spending them since their value kept going up. The problem is, if economic incentives encourage people to hoard their bitcoins rather than spend them, the currency will never fulfill its role as the future of money.

Another problem is the one arising from the currency’s “deflationary nature”. Because the system was designed to allow the creation of only a finite number of bitcoins, there will come a point where, as demand rises, the value of the currency will only go up (making the price of goods and services fall, hence the term deflation). And that could lead to hoarding on an even larger scale.

bitcoin-atm-flagshipBut according to many economists who have closely followed the progress of the digital money, Bitcoin’s recent ups and downs are to be expected from a currency so young, and one that is just now attracting major attention from the mainstream population. The bottom could fall out of the market, but the currency could just as easily stabilize and reach a point where its value is consistent enough that people no longer hoard the stuff.

So at this point, its difficult to say what the future will hold for the new miracle money known as Bitcoin. But when it comes to cryptocurrencies in general, time seems to be on their side. Ever since the Internet Revolution took off, the possibilities for creating a new, de-centralized world order – research, development, politics and business are open and inclusive in ways like never before – has been emerging.


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),, news.cnet, listosaur,

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,, 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:, (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:


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: