by Jennifer Hurst
August 13, 2018

NASA Launches the Fastest Spacecraft in History. Target: The Sun!

August 12, NASA launched its newest spacecraft, called the Parker Solar Probe, aboard a huge United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket — and by December 2024, it will become the fastest spacecraft ever. That’s when the probe will reach its closest point to the sun, coming within 3.83 million miles (6 million kilometers) of our star. At that point, the spacecraft will be speeding along at a whopping 430,000 mph (692,000 km/h). On Earth, that would be the equivalent of traveling from Washington, D.C., to Tokyo in less than a minute — or from D.C. to Philadelphia in less than a second.

In terms of so-called heliocentric velocity only — the speed with regard to the sun, without the influence of planets — two other spacecraft currently hold the record: Helios I and II, two 1970s missions that slipped closer to the sun than Mercury is to our star, reaching speeds of about 150,000 mph (241,000 km/h).

But because things orbit faster the closer in, sailing within 4 million miles (6.4 million kilometers) of the visible surface of the sun means that the Parker Solar Probe will almost triple that speed. Better wave goodbye to it while you can. —

On its closest approach to the sun near the end of the mission, the Parker Solar Probe will become the fastest spacecraft ever.
Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center



Witness the Firepower of This Fully Operational Falcon 9 Rocket

The Falcon 9 rocket has undergone four major revisions over the last eight years, culminating in the Block 5 rocket. The initial expendable version of the rocket (v1.0) could lift about 10.5 tons to low-Earth orbit. This was a nice, tidy rocket but hardly a superstar. However, one of the defining features of SpaceX is the company’s ruthless devotion to innovation. And while it may be reasonable to criticize the company for moving too far too quickly and with not quite enough focus on the here and now—when the culture of innovation works, it works.

In just eight years, SpaceX has jumped from the first version of its rocket to the Block 5 rocket. This powerful rocket can lift nearly 23 tons to low-Earth orbit, having undergone hundreds of changes and upgrades since its initial flight. Theoretically, its first stage will be capable of 10 flights before requiring significant refurbishment. It is so capable that even company founder Elon Musk (the high minister of the culture of innovation at SpaceX) says it’s good enough. This is probably the last major revision of the Falcon 9. — Ars Technica

At seven tons, this is one of the heaviest payloads SpaceX has delivered to geostationary transfer orbit. Nine engines, all-a-firing.


The New Rockets Racing to Make Space Affordable

Humankind has been flinging scientific equipment, satellites, and even living things (including the occasional astronaut) into orbit for more than 50 years, often for eye-watering sums of money that only governments could afford. But unlike during the early days of NASA preeminence, the rocket launch business over the past few years has matured into one where dozens of private companies around the globe are racing to see how cheaply they can send material into space.

For some outfits, that means developing smaller rockets that are designed to carry just a few hundred kilograms into low earth orbit (LEO)—generally altitudes of 2,400 kilometers or less—at a cost of as little as $250,000. If you’re a micro-satellite operator who can’t sit around waiting for a larger launch vehicle to sell all its payload slots to other customers, this is a game-changer. — Bloomberg



Jeff Bezos Wants to Send You to Space, Too

Guiding Blue Origin LLC “is the most important work I’m doing. It’s crucial,” Bezos told an audience in May at the National Space Society’s International Space Development Conference. He founded the rocket company 18 years ago in an old warehouse south of Seattle, originally stocking it with tinkerers and science fiction authors who could help reimagine space travel.

Now the company, known in the space business as Blue, employs more than 1,500 software engineers and rocket scientists, most of them at its headquarters in Kent, Wash., and the West Texas launch site. It plans to launch New Shepard with test pilots on board as soon as this year, and in 2019 it will sell tickets to brave tourists who want to sit atop a tank of combustible liquid hydrogen and oxygen to experience four minutes of sublime weightlessness in suborbital space. — Bloomberg


Four Huge Rockets are Due to Debut in 2020

Rocket enthusiasts are lucky to see the debut of a handful of large, powerful rockets per decade. For example, during the last 10 years, just three rockets with a capacity of 25 tons or more to low-Earth orbit have made their debuts: the Russian Angara A5 flew in 2014, the Chinese Long March 5 in 2016, and the SpaceX Falcon Heavy earlier this year.

However, there is now a chance that up to four large and powerful rockets (Ariane 6, SLS, New Glenn, Vulcan) will make their debuts during a single year, as four boosters have maiden launches scheduled for 2020. Of course, there is also a chance that none of them will fly. Delays are often inevitable in the launch industry, especially with such large and in some ways unprecedented boosters. But given the uncertainty and the unprecedented potential, we thought it might be fun to assess whether any or all of them might make it. — Ars Technica

Ariane 6


New Glenn




Space Launch System


After 25 Years, Military Told to Move from “Expendable” to “Reusable” Rockets

Less than a year and a half has passed since SpaceX first flew a used first stage of a Falcon 9 rocket, but this achievement has already shaken up the glacial process of lawmaking and military budgeting. The final version of the defense budget bill for fiscal year 2019 will make both a symbolic and a significant policy change when it comes to reusable rockets.

The conference report from the US House and Senate calls for the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program of the Department of Defense, commonly known as the EELV program, to be named the “National Security Space Launch program” as of March 1, 2019. No longer will the military rely solely on expendable rockets.

Moreover, the report says the US Air Force must consider both expendable and reusable launch vehicles as part of its solicitation for military launch contracts. And in the event that a contract is solicited for a mission that a reusable launch vehicle is not eligible to compete for, the Air Force should report back to Congress with the reason why. The US House has already agreed to the conference report, and it should be taken up in the Senate next week. After that, it will need the president’s signature to become law. — Ars Technica


SpaceShipTwo Completes Longest Powered Flight to Date

Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo Unity completed the program’s longest and highest powered flight this morning. Preliminary information was the engine burn lasted 42 seconds and the ship reached Mach 2.2 and an altitude of about 170,000 feet. The ship made a supersonic feathered descent as it deployed its twin tail booms in a shuttlecock configuration. The spacecraft was piloted by Dave Mackay and Mike ‘Sooch’ Masucci. On the previous flight at the end of May, the hybrid engine burned for 31 seconds and the vehicle reached Mach 1.9 and 114,500 feet. — Parabolic Arc


SpaceShipTwo lands after its third powered flight. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)


Branson Hopes Virgin Galactic Can Get Him to Space This Year

Richard Branson believes Virgin Galactic is “on the verge” of fulfilling its 14-year-long dream of getting to space. “Before the end of the year I hope to be sitting in a Virgin Galactic spaceship, going to space,” Branson said. “Space is tough — it is rocket science,” he continued, alluding to the company’s troubled launch history. Charting a course to space has not been easy, with a test flight crashing in the Mojave Desert in 2014, killing one pilot and seriously injuring another. In May, a series of successful test flights put Virgin Galactic back on track — but can it really get to space before the end of the year?

Branson’s claims should be taken with a mighty grain of salt. He has made similar declarations throughout the life of Virgin Galactic’s service and come up short. In 2007, he believed his spacecraft would take its maiden flight within 18 months. In October last year, he again suggested that spaceflight was only months away. After 14 years and one catastrophic failure, there’s reason to be skeptical of this updated timeline. — C Net


Commercial Spaceships Are Like ‘Driving an iPhone,’ New Astronaut Says

“With 40 years’ difference in avionics and technology, we have squeezed a lot more into a smaller ship,” said Chris Ferguson, who now works directly for Boeing on its Starliner program and who commanded the very last space shuttle flight, in 2011.

Both of the new capsules come equipped with touch screens, and the astronauts’ spacesuits include gloves that allow the spaceflyers to manipulate those screens smoothly. “It is also nice to not have all of the complications of switches and buttons, like we did in shuttle,” Suni Williams, whose first mission was aboard the shuttle, wrote in a Reddit AMA. “The new flat screens will make it easier to interact [with] and control the spacecraft.”

And it’s not just about aesthetics — the astronauts will also be able to get more done during their limited time in space. “With today’s technologies, automation in the spacecraft will help us do our tasks easier and allow us to have more capability,” Williams wrote. —


Switches on display inside the space shuttle during a demonstration test.
Credit: NASA


Lunar Prospecting Plans in the Works

While you ponder what to pack for an extended stay on the Moon, scientists are scrambling to find sustainable ways for humans to thrive on Earth’s satellite. The most obvious: Mining water ice at the poles. Last month, a team of Japanese scientists identified the mineral moganite within a lunar meteorite found in the desert of northwest Africa.

Similar to quartz, moganite is a crystal of silicon dioxide that requires water to grow. Its sheer existence, according to Tohoku University professor Masahiro Kayama, who led the recent discovery, “strongly implies that there is water activity on the Moon.”

The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) is reportedly planning two missions to hunt for and collect Moon water in 10 years. But before NASA, Jeff Bezos, or anyone else can colonize the planetoid, scientists and engineers need more data about lunar ice deposits—specifically their distribution, concentration, quantity, disposition, depth, geotechnical properties, and other characteristics. “We are surprisingly close to mining on the Moon,” said Philip Metzger, a planetary scientist at the University of Central Florida. —


Designing a Martian Habitat Where People Could Really Thrive

Hassell reveals its vision for human habitation on mars, after being listed in NASA’s top 10 for its 3D printing centennial challenge. The competition sought perspectives from outside the aerospace industry, to explore how a human habitat could be designed and delivered on mars using autonomous 3D printing technologies and sustainable design practices. The approach by Hassell and engineers Eckersley O’Callaghan puts people first — it moves beyond the idea of astronauts as operators, to create a habitat where people can not only survive life on mars but really thrive there. — Design Boom


The EOC design is a place where astronauts can live, work, rest and play, and make humans a multi-planetary species.


NASA Spotted a Vast, Glowing ‘Hydrogen Wall’ at the Edge of Our Solar System

There’s a “hydrogen wall” at the edge of our solar system, and NASA scientists think their New Horizons spacecraft can see it.

That hydrogen wall is the outer boundary of our home system, the place where our sun’s bubble of solar wind ends and where a mass of interstellar matter too small to bust through that wind builds up, pressing inward. Our host star’s powerful jets of matter and energy flow outward for a long stretch after leaving the sun — far beyond the orbit of Pluto. But at a certain point, they peter out, and their ability to push back the bits of dust and other matter — the thin, mysterious stuff floating within our galaxy’s walls — wanes. A visible boundary forms. On one side are the last vestiges of solar wind. And on the other side, in the direction of the Sun’s movement through the galaxy, there’s a buildup of interstellar matter, including hydrogen. —


The sun moves through the galaxy encases in a bubble formed by its own solar wind. In front of the sun, galactic debris builds up, inlcuding hydrogen.
Credit: Alder Planetarium/NASA



Space Tourism Economics – Financing and Regulating Trips to the Final Frontier

American engineer and businessman Dennis Tito paid US$20m in 2001 to become the world’s first official space tourist. He traveled to the International Space Station (ISS) on a Russian Soyuz capsule and then spent eight days on board, prompting some debate about the appropriateness of using the facility for financial gain. Since Tito, six other commercial passengers have visited the ISS – each on Soyuz spacecraft at US$20m a piece.

To the ordinary person, commercial space travel may seem like a pipe dream, but at an embryonic level a few well-funded space companies are creaking into action. Jeff Bezos has announced that a passenger flying with his aerospace company, Blue Origin, will pay between US$200,000 and US$300,000 for a ticket – comparable to Virgin Galactic’s proposed price of US$250,000. Passengers will experience weightlessness for three to six minutes, and enjoy unparalleled views of the stars and the curvature of the Earth.

The New Shepard rocket which Blue Origin plans to use for commercial trips has been in development since 2006. It will carry six commercial astronauts on each launch, and launches cost tens of millions of US dollars. Elon Musk has said that it costs US$62m to launch his Falcon 9 rocket, and US$90m for the much larger Falcon Heavy. If this seems like a lot, then consider the billions the rockets cost to develop. Jeff Bezos reportedly liquidates around US$1 billion per year to fund Blue Origin, and the cost of the company’s New Glenn rocket alone was US$2.5 billion. — The Conversation


Study Helps Solve Mystery Under Jupiter’s Coloured Bands

Scientists from Australia and the United States have helped to solve the mystery underlying Jupiter’s coloured bands in a new study on the interaction between atmospheres and magnetic fields.

Jupiter is the largest planet in our solar system. Unlike Earth, Jupiter has no solid surface – it is a gaseous planet, consisting mostly of hydrogen and helium.

Several strong jet streams flow west to east in Jupiter’s atmosphere that are, in a way, similar to Earth’s jet streams. Clouds of ammonia at Jupiter’s outer atmosphere are carried along by these jet streams to form Jupiter’s coloured bands, which are shades white, red, orange, brown and yellow. —


Colourful swirling cloud belts dominate Jupiter’s southern hemisphere in this image captured by NASA’s Juno spacecraft. Credit: NASA