by Jennifer Hurst
April 20, 2018

SpaceX’s President Says We’ll Be Able to Take a Rocket to Shanghai — or Mars — ‘Within a Decade’

A lot can (and probably will) change in a decade. But the idea is that a very large rocket, capable of carrying about 100 people, could fly like an aircraft and do point-to-point travel on Earth much faster than a plane — halfway across the globe in about 30 to 40 minutes, Shotwell said, landing on a pad five to 10 kilometers outside of a city center.

Shotwell estimated the ticket cost would be somewhere between economy and business class on a plane — so, likely in the thousands of dollars for transoceanic travel. “But you do it in an hour.”

How could travel by rocket cost so little? Shotwell said the efficiency would come from being fast enough to be able to operate a route a dozen or so times a day, whereas a long-haul airplane often only does one flight per day. — Recode

Host Chris Anderson, left, speaks with Gwynne Shotwell, the president of SpaceX. On the slide behind her, a proposal for a rocket-powered mode of travel. Imagine blasting off from Vancouver and being in Bahrain in 40 minutes. And as Shotwell says: It’s definitely going to happen.” Photo: Bret Hartman / TED

Jim Bridenstine Confirmed as NASA Administrator

Representative Jim Bridenstine, after some 15 months of waiting, has been confirmed as NASA’s 13th administrator. The long-delayed approval was made on Thursday, April 19, 2018. The selection of NASA’s new leader comes after much political wrangling and controversy.

With the U.S. Senate’s confirmation, Bridenstine becomes the 13th NASA administrator, something that almost didn’t happen due to Bridenstine’s views on climate change and LGBT relationships.

“The Senate vote today marks the beginning of Jim’s tenure at our nation’s space agency as America prepares to return to the Moon and push further into deep space,” said Dr. Mary Lynne Dittmar, President and CEO of the Coalition via a release issued by the organization. “The Coalition looks forward to working closely with Administrator Bridenstine and his team to support NASA’s human exploration and space science programs.”

Bridenstine, who served Oklahoma as a congressman, was approved by a 50-49 vote. Many former NASA Administrators were confirmed by unanimous votes. Opposition to Bridenstine’s appointment was led by Florida Senator and former shuttle astronaut Bill Nelson. — Space Flight Insider


Strongest Atlas V to Give Air Force Rare Direct Ride to High Orbit

At 7:13 p.m., about a half-hour before sunset, five solid rocket boosters strapped to the first stage will ignite to help the 197-foot rocket vault from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station with more than 2.5 million pounds of thrust.

That will start a nearly seven-hour mission that, after three burns by the upper stage engine, aims to drop an Air Force communications satellite and experimental payloads directly into orbits 22,300 miles above the equator.

It’s a rare trick for a rocket to perform; satellites bound for similar orbits typically must use their own engines to reach their final destination after deploying from a rocket, a process that could take days or months.

“It’s very special to do a directly inserted geosynchronous orbit, and very, very rare,” said ULA CEO Tory Bruno. “There’s a lot more unique technology involved. There are more things that have to go right. So the inherent risk is definitely higher than a less complex orbit.” — Florida Today


Delta IV Heavy: Powerful Launch Vehicle

The Delta IV Heavy is a variant of the Delta IV line. Until recently, it was the world’s most powerful operational launch vehicle in terms of launch mass. While the majority of its work is for the defense market, it is also known in space circles for successfully launching the Orion spacecraft on a test flight in December 2014. Delta IV Heavy will also launch the Parker Solar Probe in 2018.

The Delta IV line of rockets was created by McDonnell-Douglas (later part of Boeing) and is manufactured today by United Launch Alliance. The Delta IV has multiple variants, including a Delta IV Medium and three Delta IV Medium+ variants. The Medium hasn’t flown since 2006. In 2015, United Launch Alliance said it would retire all of the Medium+ configurations in 2018 or 2019 due to increased cost of the launch system, compared to the competition, according to Spaceflight Insider. The Delta Heavy is expected to remain in service for at least a while, into the 2020s. —

A United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket launches into space carrying the classified NROL-37 satellite from Cape Canaveral Air Force Base in Florida on June 11, 2016. The launch is a mission for the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office. Credit: United Launch Alliance


To Seek Out New Life: How the TESS Mission Will Accelerate the Hunt for Livable Alien Worlds

The just-launched Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) could soon provide the breakthrough identification of dozens of potentially habitable exoplanets right in our cosmic backyard.

A NEW ERA IN THE SEARCH FOR EXOPLANETS — and the alien life they might host—has begun. Aboard a SpaceX rocket, the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) launched on April 18, 2018, at 6:51 p.m. EDT. The TESS mission, developed with support from The Kavli Foundation, is led by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the MIT Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research.

Over the next two years, TESS will scan the 200,000 or so nearest and brightest stars to Earth for telltale dimming caused when exoplanets cross their stars’ faces. Among the thousands of new worlds TESS is expected to discover should be hundreds ranging in size from about one to two times Earth. These small, mostly rocky planets will serve as prime targets for detailed follow-up observations by other telescopes in space and on the ground. —

NASA’s TESS exoplanet mission launches atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on April 18, 2018. Credit: SpaceX


Designed for Deep Space

Lockheed Martin is the prime contractor building NASA’s Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, the only spacecraft designed for long-duration, human-rated deep space exploration. Orion will transport humans to interplanetary destinations beyond low Earth orbit, such as the moon and eventually Mars, and return them safely back to Earth. — Lockheed Martin


Elon Musk Shows Off a New Tooling for the BFR Spaceship

“Hop” tests of the rocket’s spaceship could begin later this year, or in 2019.

Elon Musk has been talking about SpaceX’s large BFR rocket for a few years, but so far we’ve seen precious little hardware. In 2016, Musk showed off a large, composite fuel tank that will contain pressurized liquid oxygen. The company has also shared limited video of the rocket’s Raptor engines.

Now, as SpaceX moves forward with a facility to manufacture the rocket in San Pedro, Calif., we probably will see more hardware associated with the BFR—known as the Big Falcon Rocket in polite circles. To that end, on Sunday night, Musk shared a photo of a tooling that will be used to make carbon-fiber composites for the rocket’s upper stage, the spaceship. This appears to be a mandrel, or mold, around which carbon fiber is wound for the main body of the spaceship, or BFS.

Carbon fibers, which are generally woven into a fabric, possess desirable qualities such as high tensile strength, low mass, high temperature tolerance, and low thermal expansion. Using carbon-fiber composites instead of aluminum to manufacture tanks for a rocket booster allows a manufacturer to save tons of mass, and in a rocket as large as the BFR, that will translate into many fewer tons. — Ars Technica


Debris-Dodging Spacecraft Could Use Bitcoin-Like Technology

Future spacecraft could think for themselves using the same technology that powers Bitcoin.

A new $330,000 NASA grant supports work to develop autonomous spacecraft that could make more decisions without human intervention. One example could be enabling spacecraft to dodge space debris at a distant planet or moon faster than a human on Earth could help out the far-away probe, according to a statement on the research.

If proven, Wei Kocsis’ early-stage research would be especially useful in deep-space environments, where spacecraft communicating back to Earth must currently wait for hours for a response. Instead, her work would enable the spacecraft to perform tasks using blockchain technology.

In the digital-currency world, blockchain is used to record transactions securely, without the need of a central management database such as a bank. There are many variants of digital currencies, but the most popular is known as Bitcoin. The new work uses technology incorporated into a different digital currency, called Ethereum, that not only records transactions but also can execute decentralized code, such as automatically running a transaction when conditions are met. —


The Rocket Fuel Rivalry Shaping the Future of Spaceflight

Rocket science, it turns out, is no different than the rest of society. People have divided themselves up into two tribes. When it comes to space launches, there are two basic options for rocket fuel: solid and liquid. Solid rocket fuel is just that: a thick mix of fuel and oxidizer that is poured into a rocket booster, cooked to a pencil-eraser consistency, and set on fire during launch. The energy is directed through a nozzle, generating enough thrust to get a rocket into the air. Nuclear weapons in silos and submarines use these.

Liquid rocket engines feature tanks of fuel inside the boosters, one for fuel and another for oxidizer. The two substances, chilled to super-low temperatures so they don’t convert to gas, are mixed inside the engine at the time of launch, ignited, and routed through a nozzle. The result is a tongue of hot exhaust and thrust. This is the system that powers SpaceX’s rockets.

Each fuel comes with pros and cons, and engineers can show you charts graphs of the various thrust profiles to illustrate each approach. But don’t let the seeming simplicity of the stats fool you: The schism between solid and liquid is a clash of two different visions that are fighting for the future of spaceflight. — Popular Mechanics


Vector Wants to Churn Out Rockets Like Ford Made Model Ts 

Automakers around the globe produce millions of vehicles every year. The global rocket industry? It makes fewer than 100 per year that are capable of delivering satellites to orbit. But the way Jim Cantrell sees it, cars and rockets aren’t all that different. And he wants his startup, Vector, to churn out rockets just as Ford churned out Model Ts.

Cantrell — who was an early member of Elon Musk’s SpaceX team — just hired some top brass away from the auto industry to help meet those bold production goals. Brian Barron spent more than two decades at BMW helping to fine tune the company’s assembly lines. Vector said Thursday that he’s joined the company as its vice president of manufacturing. — CNN

Vector is one of several young startups that are angling to become the next big thing in a new era of spaceflight, in which private companies, not just governments, are willing to take on the daunting costs and risks of space travel.


Launching the Small Satellite Revolution

It won’t be long until Virgin Orbit is taking small satellites into space and improving everyone’s access to data around the globe. Small satellites have huge potential to change people’s lives for the better. They connect us to each other, help us understand the world around us, keep us safe, grow the world’s economies, and expand the limits of human knowledge. In recent years, satellites have gotten smaller and cheaper but launching them can still be very costly. Enter Virgin Orbit. Like the satellites our customers are flying, our launch system is light, fast, flexible, and affordable. — Virgin

Image from Virgin Orbit


Moon Colonization: Why Do We Want it and What Technologies Do We Have?

Scientists are convinced that humankind is capable of turning the Moon into a space outpost: people have cosmodromes, heavy carrier rockets, space modules and lunar rovers. Sputnik reveals what is behind the human desire to conquer space and what challenges colonizers may face on the way.

The idea of the Moon’s colonization was quite popular during the Cold War era. But in the mid-1970s such projects by the USSR and the US were suspended as travel to the satellite proved very expensive and didn’t pursue any concrete goal.

But half a century later, the dreams of settling on the Moon have taken over mankind once again. — Moon Daily


Dark Matter Detection Breakthrough

This week, the Axion Dark Matter Experiment (ADMX) unveiled a new result, published in the journal Physical Review Letters, that places it in a category of one: it is the world’s first and only experiment to have achieved the necessary sensitivity to “hear” the telltale signs of dark matter axions. This technological breakthrough is the result of more than 30 years of research and development, with the latest piece of the puzzle coming in the form of a quantum-enabled device that allows ADMX to listen for axions more closely than any experiment ever built.

ADMX is based at the University of Washington and managed by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory. This new result, the first from the second-generation run of ADMX, sets limits on a small range of frequencies where axions may be hiding, and sets the stage for a wider search in the coming years. — UW


Tour the Space Station in VR with This Amazing 3D, 360-Degree Video

The National Geographic Channel has revealed the first 3D, 360-degree video of space as a part of its new documentary series “One Strange Rock.” We took a virtual tour with the astronauts aboard the International Space Station while hearing their thoughts on the enormity of space, and it left us speechless. —