by Jennifer Hurst
April 7, 2018

Virgin Galactic Conducts First Rocket-Powered Flight of VSS Unity

Virgin Galactic today conducted the first powered flight of its new SpaceShipTwo spaceplane, the VSS Unity. The craft made seven previous glide tests, dropped from above 40,000 feet by the mothership WhiteKnightTwo, over the course of more than a year of testing leading up to this morning’s rocket-powered flight test. Unity also broke the sound barrier for the first time, hitting a top speed of Mach 1.87 during the powered flight.

WhiteKnightTwo took off from Mojave this morning at 8:02 a.m. PDT and carried the VSS Unity up to about 46,500 feet in altitude. The mothership then dropped SpaceShipTwo, which shortly after fired up its hybrid rocket engine for the first time, burning nitrous oxide and HTPB compound. The spaceplane began an 80-degree climb, accelerating up to Mach 1.87 in the 30 seconds of engine burn. — Popular Mechanics




SpaceX Launches Its 11th Used Falcon 9 Rocket on Trip to the International Space Station

Used rockets are becoming a thing now.

Just three days after sending 10 communications satellites into orbit from California, SpaceX is launching again, this time out of Cape Canaveral, Florida. The company is launching one of its previously flown Falcon 9 rockets, which will send up 5,800 pounds of supplies and science experiments to the International Space Station. That cargo will be riding atop the rocket inside one of SpaceX’s Dragon capsules — which flew to the ISS once before, too.

This is the second time NASA is relying on a used Falcon 9 rocket to get equipment to the space station, and it’s the third time a used Dragon cargo capsule will carry supplies to the ISS, as well. — The Verge

Update 4:45 p.m. EDT: SpaceX successfully launched a Dragon spacecraft filled with supplies and science experiments for the International Space Station. The launch was nominal, and the Dragon spacecraft successfully deployed its solar arrays. The Dragon spacecraft will now undergo a two-day flight to the ISS, arriving at about 7:00 a.m. EDT on Wednesday, April 4.



Rocket Lab Sets Date for First Commercial Launch of its Electron Rocket

US spaceflight startup Rocket Lab is officially open for business and has scheduled its very first commercial launch for later this month. The company will launch its small Electron rocket with payloads from two paying satellite operators on board — just three months after completing a second test flight of the vehicle. The upcoming mission will initiate the beginning of customer operations for Rocket Lab, which claims to have a busy manifest for this year and next. — The Verge

Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket takes off from New Zealand during its second test flight Image: Rocket Lab


‘First Luxury Space Hotel’ Plans to Offer Zero Gravity Living – For $792,000 a Night

Self-described ‘serial entrepreneur’ behind the Aurora Station says it is selling the astronaut experience and plans to open the “first luxury hotel in space” by late 2021.

Orion Span’s compact Aurora Station – at 35ft-by-14ft its interior will be comparable to that of a Gulfstream jet, the company said – is projected to accommodate four travelers and two crew members for 12-day stays 200 miles above the earth. Guests will be charged $9.5m each, or about $791,666 a night. Refundable deposits of $80,000 can now be made online.

The founder Frank Bunger – described by his own company as “a serial entrepreneur and technology start-up executive” – told Bloomberg: “We want to get people into space because it’s the final frontier for our civilization.” — The Guardian


Journey to Mars Overview

NASA is on a journey to Mars, with a goal of sending humans to the Red Planet in the 2030s. That journey is already well under way.

For decades, the agency and its partners have sent orbiters, landers and rovers, dramatically increasing our knowledge about the Red Planet and paving the way for future human explorers. The Curiosity rover has gathered radiation data to help us protect future astronauts, and the upcoming Mars 2020 rover will study the availability of Martian resources, including oxygen.

There is more to learn as we expand humanity’s presence into the solar system: Was Mars once home to microbial life or is it today? Can it be a safe home for humans? What can the Red Planet teach us about our own planet’s past, present and future?

Building on the robotic legacy, the human exploration of Mars crosses three thresholds, each with increasing challenges as humans move farther from Earth: Earth Reliant, the Proving Ground, and Earth Independent. — NASA

Mars as seen by NASA’s Viking 1 orbiter. Credit: NASA/JPL


NASA Awards Contract to Build Quieter Supersonic Aircraft

NASA has taken another step toward re-introducing supersonic flight with the award Tuesday of a contract for the design, building and testing of a supersonic aircraft that reduces a sonic boom to a gentle thump.

Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Company of Palmdale, California, was selected for the Low-Boom Flight Demonstration contract, a cost-plus-incentive-fee contract valued at $247.5 million. Work under the contract began April 2 and runs through Dec. 31, 2021.

Under this contract, Lockheed Martin will complete the design and fabrication of an experimental aircraft, known as an X-plane, which will cruise at 55,000 feet at a speed of about 940 mph and create a sound about as loud as a car door closing, 75 Perceived Level decibel (PLdB), instead of a sonic boom. — NASA


Prototype Satellite Launched on SpaceX Rocket Will Try to Clean Up Space Junk

On the whole, space is mostly empty, but the space around the Earth is anything but. Earth’s orbit is full of thousands of satellites, pieces of debris, and junk from the thousands of rocket launches over the past few decades. This presents a serious problem for future satellites: Any one of them could be randomly taken out by a flying piece of space junk.

The only way to solve this problem is to clean up space, but that’s easier said than done. Plenty of organizations, including NASA and the Chinese and Japanese space agencies, have developed their own prototype space debris catchers. On Monday, one such debris catcher, named RemoveDEBRIS, was launched into space and will undergo testing over the next few weeks. — Popular Mechanics


NASA’s Mission to Touch the Sun Arrives in the Sunshine State

NASA’s Parker Solar Probe has arrived in Florida to begin final preparations for its launch to the Sun, scheduled for July 31, 2018.

In the middle of the night on April 2, the spacecraft was driven from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, to nearby Joint Base Andrews in Maryland. From there, it was flown by the United States Air Force’s 436th Airlift Wing to Space Coast Regional Airport in Titusville, Florida, where it arrived at 10:40 a.m. EDT. It was then transported a short distance to Astrotech Space Operations, also in Titusville, where it will continue testing, and eventually, undergo final assembly and mating to the third stage of the Delta IV Heavy launch vehicle.

Parker Solar Probe is humanity’s first mission to the Sun. After launch, it will orbit directly through the solar atmosphere – the corona – closer to the surface than any human-made object has ever gone. While facing brutal heat and radiation, the mission will reveal fundamental science behind what drives the solar wind, the constant outpouring of material from the Sun that shapes planetary atmospheres and affects space weather near Earth. — NASA


A Third of Young Millennials Are Confused About This Incontrovertible Fact

Only 66 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds in the U.S. are confident that the world is round, according to a new national survey.

The findings don’t necessarily indicate an epidemic of flat-Earthism, as only 4 percent of the 18- to 24-year-old age group said they actually believe the world is flat. Rather, there seem to be a relatively large number in this age group who are willing to entertain doubts: 9 percent said they had always believed the world was round but were recently having doubts, 5 percent said they had always believed the world was flat but were becoming skeptical of that conclusion and 16 percent just weren’t sure.

Flat-Earth philosophy has been around since the 19th century, but it has recently blown up online, particularly on YouTube and Twitter. Believers post videos and memes arguing their case for a flat Earth and positing conspiracy theories to explain away everything that makes it clear that the planet is, in fact, a globe. —

Flat-Earthers believe that the Earth is a flat disc ringed by an ice wall. Credit: Ian Cuming/Getty


Chinese Space Station Tiangong 1 Falls to Earth

The space station disintegrated in the atmosphere over the South Pacific.

China’s prototype space station, whose name translates as “Heavenly Palace 1,” met a fiery end in Earth’s atmosphere today (April 1), breaking apart and burning up in the skies over the southern Pacific Ocean at about 8:16 p.m. EDT (0016 April 2 GMT), according to the U.S. Strategic Command’s Joint Force Space Component Command (JFSCC).

“The JFSCC used the Space Surveillance Network sensors and their orbital analysis system to confirm Tiangong-1’s re-entry,” U.S. Air Force officials wrote in a statement. — Scientific American


Astronomers Use a Quirk of Physics to Spot the Most Distant Star Ever Seen

 There are stars too faint to see in the night sky just a few light years away, yet a chance cosmic event gave us a glimpse of a star that would have otherwise been completely invisible due to its immense distance from Earth—a whopping 9 billion light-years away.

A paper today in Nature Astronomy reports the discovery of the star, called MACS J1149 Lensed Star 1, or Icarus informally. Finding such a distant star is normally a tall order, but a larger object happened to pass in front of its home galaxy. When a large object passes in front of another, its gravitational well bends space around it and can act like a giant magnifying glass in the sky. — Popular Mechanics



NASA Has a Plan to Put Robot Bees on Mars

NASA has two teams of researchers working to design a robotic bee that can fly on Mars.

The space agency announced the project on March 30. It’s in its early stages, but the idea is to replace modern rovers — which are slow, bulky and very expensive — with swarms of sensor-studded, fast-moving micro-bots that can cover much more ground at a relatively low cost.

Literally called Marsbees, the little bots are “flapping wing flyers of a bumblebee size with cicada-sized wings,” NASA officials wrote. —


Anticipating Visitors? The Moon is Set to Receive Its Own Mobile Phone Network Next Year

If and when humans do land on the moon to start a colony there, how is everyone going to communicate wirelessly? Here on Earth, people rely on mobile phone networks that are scattered but interconnected all across the planet. A similar system is now going to be built on the moon as well, thanks to an effort that’s going to begin some time in 2019.

The new project, which is being spearheaded by Vodafone and Nokia, will lead to the creation of the very first 4G LTE mobile network on the moon itself. It’s part of a much bigger “Mission to the Moon” that is going to be conducted by the Berlin-based Part Time Scientists (PTScientists), who are planning to launch one lander and two small rovers from Cape Canaveral, Florida, with help from SpaceX. The mission is scheduled to happen during the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing mission orchestrated by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). — Space News


A Dark Version of ‘Lost in Space’ Is Coming to Netflix This Month

Netflix will launch a reboot of “Lost in Space” on April 13 — and you can expect a much darker, more intense tone than the lighthearted feel of the original 1960s series, its screenwriters say.

“Lost in Space” was a CBS show that ran between 1965 and 1968, which overlaps with NBC’s run of the original “Star Trek” (1966-1969). While “Star Trek” focused on a military-style crew, “Lost in Space” examined a space journey’s effects on the Robinson family, who were on their way to Alpha Centauri, the nearest star system to our own. The family’s ship was sabotaged, and they lost their way, leading to 83 episodes’ worth of adventures.

The Netflix reboot’s first (and, so far, only) season will include 10 episodes. It has already made some changes to the story, including swapping the gender of one of the main characters, Dr. Smith. (The character was male in the original and is female in the reboot.) A Netflix trailer released March 6 shows a ship exploding with the Robinson family on board, leaving them stuck on a remote planet. —

Taylor Russell, Molly Parker, Toby Stephens, Max Jenkins, Ignacio Serricchio and Mina Sundwall star in Netflix’s “Lost in Space.” Credit: Netflix