by Jennifer Hurst
December 1, 2018

InSight Mission Lands Safely on Mars After ‘Seven Minutes of Terror’

NASA’s latest Mars lander, InSight, successfully touched down on the surface of the Red Planet this afternoon, surviving an intense plunge through the Martian atmosphere. It marks the eighth picture-perfect landing on Mars for NASA, adding to the space agency’s impressive track record of putting spacecraft on the planet. And now, InSight’s two-year mission has begun, one that entails listening for Marsquakes to learn about the world’s interior.

After six and a half months of traveling through space, InSight hit the top of Mars’ atmosphere a little before 3PM ET, Nov.26, 2018. It then made a daring descent to the surface, performing a complex multistep routine that slowed the lander from more than 12,000 miles per hour to just 5 miles per hour before it hit the ground. To get to the surface safely, InSight had to autonomously deploy a supersonic parachute, gather radar measurements, and ignite its thrusters all at the right time. Altogether, the landing took just under seven minutes to complete, prompting the nickname “seven minutes of terror.” — The Verge

NASA’s First Mission to Study the Interior of Mars.


Richard Branson Says Virgin Galactic Will Take People to Space By Christmas

Virgin Galactic may hit a major milestone this coming month: finally sending people to space.

CEO Richard Branson said he was “reasonably confident” that Virgin Galactic would send its first astronauts into space before Christmas.

Virgin Galactic’s goal is to eventually send “space tourists” into orbit, but the company has to first send professional astronauts to space first before it can start transporting paying passengers.

After the first few test flights –which Branson acknowledges will be “the dangerous ones”– Branson says he will be the first passenger to fly to space.

SpaceShipTwo, Galactic’s rocket-powered plane, will fly into space after it detaches from beneath the wing of a mothership. It has been thoroughly tested on the ground and at lower altitudes, Branson said. But, the first few flights to space will be “the dangerous ones.”

The pilots will fly the space plane at 2,300 miles per hour, accelerating to top speed in about eight seconds. “Safety’s all that matters if you’re putting people into space,” he said. “So none of us will race to be the first.”

But, he added, “Virgin Galactic will be the first.” — CNet

Virgin Galactic will take people to space by Christmas, says Richard Branson – CNET


Goodbye, BFR… Hello, Starship: Elon Musk Gives a Classic Name to His Mars Spaceship

First, it was the Mars Colonial Transporter, or MCT … then it was the Interplanetary Transport System, or ITS … then it was the Big Falcon Rocket, or BFR. Now it’s Starship.

Tonight SpaceX CEO Elon Musk announced the latest name for the spaceship that he says SpaceX aims to use to deliver a million people to Mars, send a Japanese billionaire and an assortment of artists around the moon and back, carry passengers on supersonic trips around the globe, and basically do everything big that needs to be done in space. — Geek Wire

An artist’s conception shows SpaceX’s Starship in flight. (SpaceX Illustration)


Satellite Data Business is Amazon’s Next Disruption Target

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos 18 years ago founded Blue Origin to make space travel cheaper and more accessible. The company on Tuesday announced a new foray into the space business by partnering with defense industry giant Lockheed Martin to provide low-cost ground infrastructure to satellite startups.

The new business venture — called AWS Ground Station — brings to bear the cloud-computing capabilities of Amazon Web Services in ground stations where satellite data is uploaded. Lockheed Martin’s contribution to the partnership is a network of distributed antennas that would supplement traditional dish antennas.

“This partnership is designed to be disruptive and lower the barrier of the cost of entry,” Rick Ambrose, executive vice president of Lockheed Martin Space, told SpaceNews. “Startups don’t have to buy computing power or parabolic dishes. You buy what you need, services on demand.”

The target customers for this service are companies and government agencies that operate hundreds — eventually thousands — of satellites orbiting the Earth and collecting data, particularly low Earth orbit satellites that collect imagery and currently account for about 63 percent of the active satellites in orbit, Lockheed Martin said in a news release. The Amazon-Lockheed venture will challenge both incumbent and startup ground station operators that have in recent years designed services specifically for the burgeoning small satellite sector. — Space News

Amazon CEO and Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos is partnering with defense industry giant Lockheed Martin to provide low-cost ground infrastructure to satellite startups. Credit: Bloomberg


Pint-Sized Space Race: Miniature Rockets Are Starting To Crowd Launch Pads

The trend of miniaturizing satellites is driving a new space race: one to build small rockets to launch the new breed of small satellites. Backed by investors including Richard Branson and the late Paul Allen, rockets that clock in at less than a quarter of the weight and size of heavyweight peers are carving out a new frontier in commercial space. Companies like Rocket Lab, which last week sent its third small rocket into space, are filling a demand by satellite customers that want to control when and where their launch happens. — Forbes

Launch of a Rocket Lab Electron rocket. ROCKET LAB


It Will Soon be Possible to Send a Satellite to Repair Another

Or to destroy it.

Jet packs for satellites. According to Daniel Campbell, the boss of Effective Space, the British and Israeli firm which is building them, that is the way to think of the robotic spacecraft his company plans to start launching in 2020. The purpose of Effective Space’s devices, which it calls space drones, is to prolong the lives of communications satellites (com-sats) that would otherwise be decommissioned for lack of fuel for station-keeping—in other words, for maintaining their proper orbits.

At the moment, about two dozen big geosynchronous com-sats (those with orbits exactly 24 hours long, which thus hover continuously over the same spot on Earth) are retired each year, most commonly because of fuel exhaustion. Mr Campbell proposes to do something about that. In partnership with Israel Aerospace Industries, a government-owned firm, he plans to build the first two space drones in Tel Aviv, for launch in 2020.

Next year SpaceLogistics, a subsidiary of Northrop Grumman, an American engineering giant, will launch its first such “mission extension” spacecraft. mev-1, as it is named, will handle station-keeping for Intelsat-901, a big com-sat that is currently low on fuel. SpaceLogistics reckons its docking system can clamp onto 80% of today’s geosynchronous satellites. — The Economist


Curiosity Rover Just Spotted This Super-Shiny Object on Mars

An unusually smooth and reflective Martian rock has caught the attention of NASA scientists, prompting an investigation by the Curiosity rover.

With the spectacularly successful landing of the InSight probe on Mars earlier this week, our attention has understandably been diverted away from Curiosity, which has been exploring the Red Planet since 2012. While we’ve been gushing over InSight, the six-wheeled NASA rover has been working at Vera Rubin Ridge, investigating the Highfield outcrop, a unique patch of grey bedrock.

Curiosity has been at the Highfield drill site before, but NASA’s mission controllers wanted to take a look at four previously detected rocks—including an unusually smooth rock that, in black and white at least, looks a bit like a chunk of gold.

Immediate suspicions are that the rock, dubbed Little Colonsay, is a meteorite, but NASA scientists won’t know for sure until Curiosity performs a chemical analysis. The rover’s ChemCam instrument, which consists of a camera, spectrograph, and laser, offers an on-the-spot chemistry lab. — Gizmodo

Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/LANL


NASA May Start Selling Tourists Tickets to Space

NASA might soon be joining Richard Branson, Jeff Bezos, and Elon Musk in the space-for-profit race.

After watching the billionaires’ respective Virgin Galaxy, Blue Origin, and SpaceX race to blast tourists out of the earth’s atmosphere, NASA is considering a proposal to sell private citizens tickets aboard rockets to and from the International Space Station (ISS).

“I’d like to see, maybe one day, NASA astronauts on the cover of a cereal box, embedded into the American culture,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine in an August presentation. On top of his suggestion to sell branding “to enhance the exposure of space activities in the popular culture,” privatized space travel could be another move to increase NASA’s hold on public consciousness. — Fortune

Marjie Lambert—Miami Herald/TNS via Getty Images


Space Force Proposal Could Create a Broader Military Department for Both Air and Space

During a White House meeting on Thursday, Pentagon and administration officials discussed the possibility of establishing a Space Force under a larger Department of the Air and Space Force.

A team of Pentagon officials led by Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan floated this idea to Vice President Mike Pence, who leads the administration’s space reorganization efforts. Shanahan is overseeing the drafting of a legislative proposal that will be submitted to the White House in the coming weeks and, once approved, will be sent to Capitol Hill with the president’s budget request for fiscal year 2020.

The Space Force under this proposed organization would not include the National Reconnaissance Office or any other element of the intelligence community.

The president has been insistent that a Space Force should be a completely independent military department. A draft policy directive — known as Space Policy Directive 4 — has been in the works for weeks. According to a version of the policy dated Nov. 19, the Pentagon would be directed to propose a Space Force as a separate military branch with its own civilian leadership. A White House spokesperson said the Nov. 19 draft memo is “subject to change, and the Space Council continues to work with the departments and agencies responsible for carrying out President Trump’s direction to establish the U.S. Space Force as a sixth armed service.” — Space News


9 US Companies Are Going to the Moon! Here Are NASA’s New Partners.

NASA has selected the first batch of U.S. companies to join the agency on its journey to its next destination, the moon, which NASA wants to explore in order to prepare to go on to Mars.

During a public event held today (Nov. 29), the agency unveiled nine new partners that will be designing and building lunar landers aimed at facilitating scientific exploration of the moon. In addition to the specific companies chosen, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine also announced that the program running those contracts — the Commercial Lunar Payload Services program — is now part of the science section of NASA’s bureaucracy, not the human exploration section. —

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine (far left) and Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate Thomas Zurbuchen (far right) pose for a photograph with the representatives of the nine U.S. companies that are eligible to bid on NASA delivery services to the lunar surface through Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) contracts. NASA announced the companies Nov. 29, 2018 at the agency’s headquarters in Washington, D.C.
Credit: Bill Ingalls/NASA


Thought Black Holes Were Donut-Shaped? It Turns Out They’re More Like Deadly Fountains

Black holes aren’t shaped like donuts after all, and actually look like water fountains instead, according to new research.

Previous theoretical models set a priori assumptions of rigid donuts. Scientists believed that as surrounding matter is sucked into the void, it piles up around the black hole creating a donut-like structure.

That ‘donut’, however, isn’t rigid. Instead, it’s made up lots of different gaseous parts. Cold molecular gas getting sucked into black hole creates an accretion disk. As it edges closer to the abyss, the gas heats up and the molecules are ionized. The atoms are deflected above and below the disk and come crashing back down onto it, like water being sprayed from a fountain. A big killer fountain. — The Register

The process that creates the water fountain-like structure. Image credit: Wada et al.


While You Weren’t Looking, Engineers Combined a Plane and a Blimp to Make a Plimp Airship

What happens when you cross a blimp with a plane, and give it a few helicopter features? A lighter-than-air plimp-hybrid airship is born, according to a Seattle-based company looking for investors.

The plimp-hybrid airship is actually faster and safer than a blimp, which has to offgas during unpowered descent, Egan said. The newly designed airships are also different than the Hindenburg.

When the Model J is full — carrying the aforementioned 2,000 lbs. — it should be able to cruise at 86 mph (138 km/h) for 3 hours, or a distance of 260 miles (418 km). When empty (for instance, when acting as a flying billboard), it can travel a whopping 1,300 miles (about 2,100 km), a distance equal to a trip from Los Angeles to Dallas. — 

Plimp aircraft could be used to transport people and equipment and shows the different plimp aircraft Egan Airships plans to bring to market.
Credit: Egan Airships


Mars Panorama – Curiosity Rover: Martian Solar Day 2082

This panorama combines 83 exposures taken by the rover’s Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) during the Sol 2082 of Curiosity’s work on Mars (June 15, 2018)

A Martian dust storm has reduced sunlight and visibility at the rover’s location in Gale Crater.

A storm of tiny dust particles has engulfed much of Mars over the last two weeks and prompted NASA’s Opportunity rover to suspend science operations. But across the planet, NASA’s Curiosity rover, which has been studying Martian soil at Gale Crater, is expected to remain largely unaffected by the dust. While Opportunity is powered by sunlight, which is blotted out by dust at its current location, Curiosity has a nuclear-powered battery that runs day and night.

The Martian dust storm has grown in size and is now officially a “planet-encircling” (or “global”) dust event. — 360 Cities

Click Image to 360 view.


AI Robot CIMON Debuts at International Space Station

The space station robot CIMON has exchanged its first words with its spacefaring crew.

German astronaut Alexander Gerst talked with the artificially intelligent crew-assistant CIMON during a 90-minute experiment on Nov. 15 aboard the International Space Station (ISS).

During the experiment, CIMON successfully found and recognized Gerst’s face, took photos and video, positioned itself autonomously within the Columbus module using its ultrasonic sensors, and issued instructions for Gerst to perform a student-designed experiment with crystals.

Weighing about 5 kilograms (11 lbs. on Earth), the 3D-printed robot designed jointly by the German space agency DLR, Airbus and IBM works similarly to Apple’s virtual assistant Siri or Amazon’s Alexa. CIMON doesn’t process commands itself, but instead communicates with a ground-based cloud computer — IBM’s natural-language-processing computer Watson. —