by Jennifer Hurst
December 15, 2018

Virgin Galactic Flies its First Astronauts to the Edge of Space, Taking One Step Closer to Space Tourism

Virgin Galactic completed its longest rocket-powered flight ever on Thursday, taking a step ahead in the nascent business of space tourism.

The two pilots on board Virgin Galactic’s spacecraft Unity became the company’s first astronauts. Virgin Group founder Richard Branson was on hand to watch the historic moment.

“Many of you will know how important the dream of space travel is to me personally. Ever since I watched the moon landings as a child I have looked up to the skies with wonder,” Branson said after the flight. “This is a momentous day and I could not be more proud of our teams who together have opened a new chapter of space exploration.” — CNBC

Richard Branson speaks at the Mojave Air and Space Port Dec. 13 after the latest successful SpaceShipTwo test flight. Credit: Virgin Galactic/Quasar Media 2018



Elon Musk Beat a World Record for Rocket Launches in 2018. Here’s Every History-Making SpaceX Mission of the Year.

This has been SpaceX’s most incredible year yet for launching rockets.

In 2018, Elon Musk’s aerospace company achieved 20 successful launches. Those missions sent dozens of payloads into orbit, debuted two experimental Starlink internet satellites, and even shot a car past the orbit of Mars.

The company still has one more launch planned for December.

SpaceX broke its own record for the most orbital rocket launches by a single company in a year. The company set that record — 18 launches over a single calendar year — in 2017. (United Launch Alliance held the title prior to that with 16 commercial rockets launched in 2009.)

1. Zuma — January 8  2. GovSat-1/SES-16 — January 31 3. Falcon Heavy and Starman/Tesla — February 6  4. Paz and Tintin A/B — February 22 5. Hispasat 30W-6 — March 6 6. Iridium NEXT-5 — March 30 7. CRS-14 — April 2 8. Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) — April 18 9. Bangabandhu Satellite-1 — May 11 10. Iridium NEXT-6 and GRACE-FO — May 22 11. SES-12 — June 4 12. CRS-15 — June 29 13. Telstar 19 Vantage — July 22 14. Iridium NEXT-7 — July 25 15. Merah Putih — August 7 16. Telstar 18 Vantage/Apstar-5C — September 10 17. SAOCOM 1A — October 8 18. Es’hail-2 — November 15 19. SSO-A (SmallSat Express) — December 3 20. CRS-16 — December 5 21. GPS IIIA-01 — slated for December 18 — Business Insider


2019 Could Be Huge for Private Spaceflight

The upcoming year is shaping up to be a big one for private spaceflight. A number of big players in the race to get paying passengers to space seem poised to actually make that happen, and companies like Boeing and SpaceX have announced a number of ambitious goals. It looks like they might be beat by the Brit, though. Last week, billionaire entrepreneur Richard Branson claimed that his company Virgin Galactic will send astronauts into space by Christmas of this year. Branson told CNN that he is “pretty confident” about this goal.

As anticipated, SpaceX is pushing forward with their plans to launch the Crew Dragon spacecraft, the company’s first commercial crew vehicle, in 2019. SpaceX recently announced that they will launch the first unmanned test flight with Crew Dragon on January 7, 2019. The vehicle is scheduled to launch from the Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39A, which was once used for NASA’s Apollo and Space Shuttle programs. SpaceX aims to launch the first crewed flight with Crew Dragon in June 2019, but this is also a tentative date.

NASA is beginning to embrace this influx of private spaceflight companies, and the agency recently partnered with nine private space firms that will be a part of their Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program. While companies in the program will create spacecraft to ferry crewless payloads to the moon, these efforts could also support the future of humans on both the moon and, eventually, Mars. — Astronomy


NASA Seeks US Partners to Develop Reusable Systems to Land Astronauts on Moon

As the next major step to return astronauts to the Moon under Space Policy Directive-1, NASA announced plans on Dec. 13 to work with American companies to design and develop new reusable systems for astronauts to land on the lunar surface. The agency is planning to test new human-class landers on the Moon beginning in 2024, with the goal of sending crew to the surface in 2028.

Through upcoming multi-phased lunar exploration partnerships, NASA will ask American companies to study the best approach to landing astronauts on the Moon and start the development as quickly as possible with current and future anticipated technologies.

“Building on our model in low-Earth orbit, we’ll expand our partnerships with industry and other nations to explore the Moon and advance our missions to farther destinations such as Mars, with America leading the way,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. “When we send astronauts to the surface of the Moon in the next decade, it will be in a sustainable fashion.” — Moon Daily

File image of a Lockheed Martin lunar lander concept.


Will SpaceX Really Be Flying People To Mars In 10 Years?

SpaceX’s President Gwynne Shotwell has said she is confident that the company will be launching people regularly to Mars in a decade.

In an interview with NPR’s Marketplace, Shotwell – who is also SpaceX’s Chief Operating Officer (COO) – said that 10 years “feels like an eternity”, and cited the rapid development of their other rockets as reason to believe it was possible.

“I think we will have a machine that certainly is capable of taking people to Mars and back in 10 years,” she said. “No programme we’ve worked on has taken 10 years.”

“We’ve only been in business for 16 years,” she continued. “And what have we done in 16 years? We’ve flown 65 times, flew Falcon Heavy, 16 missions to the International Space Station, and developed a crew capsule that we’re about ready to fly.”

SpaceX, founded by Elon Musk in 2002, are hoping to start taking people to Mars aboard a huge new rocket originally dubbed the Big Falcon Rocket (BFR), but recently renamed Starship. — Forbes

The company is developing the Starship vehicle to go to MarsSPACEX


To Live in Space, We Have to Build Things in Space

For people to land or live on Mars, they’ll have to survive in a hostile environment where you can’t just run to the hardware store for new tools … or a new satellite or new house. So some companies are trying to move manufacturing to space. NASA contracted with one company, called Made in Space, to use a 3D printer for making tools on the International Space Station. One day it may be able to “print” satellites in space. In-space manufacturing may also be used to create better earthbound products. — Marketplace


NASA’s InSight Lander on Mars Spotted from Space

NASA’s newly arrived Mars lander has been spotted by one its orbiting cousins.

The space agency’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter used its supersharp High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment camera (HiRISE) to photograph the InSight lander, as well as the hardware that helped the stationary robot ace its Nov. 26 touchdown on the equatorial plain known as Elysium Planitia.

“It looks like the heat shield (upper right) has its dark outside facing down, since it is so bright (saturated, probably a specular reflection),” HiRISE principal investigator Alfred McEwen, of the University of Arizona, wrote in an image description today (Dec. 13). —

NASA’s InSight Mars lander, as seen by the HiRISE camera aboard NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona


NASA’s Famed Voyager 2 Spacecraft Reaches Interstellar Space

It’s time to say goodbye to one of the most storied explorers of our age: Voyager 2 has entered interstellar space, NASA announced today (Dec. 10).

Voyager 2, which launched in 1977, has spent more four decades exploring our solar system, most famously becoming the only probe ever to study Neptune and Uranus during planetary flybys. Now, it has joined its predecessor Voyager 1 beyond the bounds of our sun’s influence, a milestone scientists weren’t able to precisely predict when would occur. And intriguingly, humanity’s second crossing doesn’t look precisely like data from the first journey out. —


Asteroid Bennu Had Water! NASA Probe Makes Tantalizing Find

It looks like NASA chose the right space rock for its asteroid-sampling mission.

The agency’s OSIRIS-REx probe, which just arrived at Bennu last week, has already found hydrated minerals on the 1,640-foot-wide (500 meters) near-Earth asteroid, mission team members announced today (Dec. 10).

The discovery suggests that liquid water was once plentiful in the interior of Bennu’s parent body, which scientists think was a roughly 62-mile-wide (100 kilometers) rock in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. (Bennu is likely a pile of rubble that coalesced after a massive impact shattered that larger object hundreds of millions of years ago. —

This mosaic image of asteroid Bennu is composed of 12 PolyCam images collected on Dec. 2 by the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft from a range of 15 miles (24 kilometers).
Credit: NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona


Intelsat Launches Broadband Service Aimed at Military and Government Aircraft

Satellite communications provider Intelsat announced on Thursday it is launching a new in-flight broadband service aimed at military and government aircraft.

The service, called FlexAir, was the result of a year-long market study of military and government aircraft operators. The company concluded this market is under-served, Skot Butler, president of Intelsat General, told SpaceNews. “They want guaranteed availability of service wherever they go, even when they fly nonstandard routes, they want more coverage and capacity as well as high data rates.”

Potential customers also said they wanted flexible pricing based on their data rate and geographic needs without having to make an upfront commitment, Butler said. “They don’t fly 24/7, and don’t want to pay if they don’t use it.” The company will offer different pricing plans so customers only pay for what they need. — Space News


How to See Ghostly Green Comet 46P/Wirtanen Fly by Earth This Weekend

You can expect a ghostly green blob to grow brighter in the sky near Orion in the coming days, as Comet 46P/Wirtanen makes it closest approach to the Earth in 20 years this weekend.

Shining just bright enough to be glimpsed with the naked eye, this fuzzy visitor of ice and rock will be easily visible through late December. NASA has even sponsored an observing campaign (led by the University of Maryland) to track the comet with professional and amateur astronomical groups.

The comet will make its closest approach on Sunday (Dec. 16), flying by just 7,199,427 miles (11,586,350 kilometers) from our planet. That’s about 30 times the distance to the moon. It sounds far away, but in celestial terms, this is a close flyby — among the 10 closest cometary approaches since 1950, according to skywatching columnist Joe Rao. If you’re worried about dangerous comets striking Earth, however, breathe easy: Wirtanen is not on the list of those that astronomers worry about.

“This will be the closest comet Wirtanen has come to Earth for centuries and the closest it will come to Earth for centuries,” Paul Chodas, manager of NASA’s Center for Near-Earth Object Studies at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, said in a statement. “This could be one of the brightest comets in years, offering astronomers an important opportunity to study a comet up close with ground-based telescopes, both optical and radar.” —

A 120-second exposure of Comet 46P/Wirtanen taken with an iTelescope 50-mm refractor at an observatory near Mayhill, New Mexico. A rocket’s upper stage passed through the telescope’s field of view during the exposure, creating the streak below the comet.
Credit: NASA


This Fluffy Alien World Leaves Behind a Tail of Escaping Helium

As a Jupiter-size world swings around its small but active star, bombarded by radiation, the planet leaves behind a tail of escaping helium as wide as itself — and researchers have spotted this tail from the ground, 163 light-years away.

Since scientists first found planets around other stars, many of their most striking discoveries have come from off-Earth instruments like NASA’s Kepler and Hubble space telescopes. Kepler has identified more than 2,000 verified planets passing by their stars, while Hubble observations have helped scientists characterize exoplanet atmospheres. But two new papers published today (Dec. 6) in the journal Science pinpoint the movement of helium in alien atmospheres from the comfort of our home planet. — Live Science


Highly Anticipated GPS 3 Launch Just Days Away

The U.S. Air Force’s first GPS 3 satellite was encapsulated within a SpaceX payload fairing at Astrotech Space Operations on Dec. 7 in preparation for a Dec. 18 launch at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

Encapsulation of the satellite within its payload fairing protects it against the impact of dynamic pressure and aerodynamic heating during its flight through the earth’s atmosphere. The first vehicle of the Lockheed Martin-made GPS 3 constellation is called Vespucci, in honor of Amerigo Vespucci, the Italian explorer for whom the Americas were named.

The Air Force Space and Missile Systems center reported yesterday that the vehicle is ready to be rolled out to its pad at Space Launch Complex-40, where it will be mated with a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.

Vespucci will augment the current 31-satellite constellation that provides positioning, navigation, and timing services for more than four billion users worldwide. – Space News


Juno Begins 16th Jupiter Flyby, Completes Global Coverage

On Dec. 21, at 8:49:48 a.m. PST (11:49:48 a.m. EST) NASA’s Juno spacecraft will be 3,140 miles (5,053 kilometers) above Jupiter’s cloud tops and hurtling by at a healthy clip of 128,802 mph (207,287 kilometers per hour). This will be the 16th science pass of the gas giant and will mark the solar-powered spacecraft’s halfway point in data collection during its prime mission.

Juno is in a highly-elliptical 53-day orbit around Jupiter. Each orbit includes a close passage over the planet’s cloud deck, where it flies a ground track that extends from Jupiter’s north pole to its south pole.

“With our 16th science flyby, we will have complete global coverage of Jupiter, albeit at coarse resolution, with polar passes separated by 22.5 degrees of longitude,” said Jack Connerney, Juno deputy principal investigator from the Space Research Corporation in Annapolis, Maryland. “Over the second half of our prime mission – science flybys 17 through 32 – we will split the difference, flying exactly halfway between each previous orbit. This will provide coverage of the planet every 11.25 degrees of longitude, providing a more detailed picture of what makes the whole of Jupiter tick.” —

A south tropical disturbance has just passed Jupiter’s iconic Great Red Spot, and is captured stealing threads of orange haze from the Great Red Spot in this series of color-enhanced images from NASA’s Juno spacecraft. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Gerald Eichstädt/Seán Doran