by Jennifer Hurst
December 29, 2018

SpaceX’s Elon Musk: Odds of Starship Reaching Orbit by 2020 are “Rising Rapidly”

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has suggested that the company’s newly revamped Starship and Super Heavy rocket (previously known as BFR) could perform its first integrated launches – placing Starship into orbit – as few as 12-24 months from today.

Musk indicated that the odds of Starship reaching orbit as early as 2020 are now as high as “60% [and] rising rapidly”, thanks in no small part to the flurry of radical changes the spacecraft and booster have both undergone over the course of 2018.

Combined with a decision – made public at a September 2018 media event – to delay the debut of a vacuum-optimized upper stage Raptor (RVac) and stick with its mature sea level variant, Musk apparently is quite confident that these dramatic shifts in strategy will allow SpaceX to aggressively slash the development schedules of its next-gen launch vehicle. Intriguingly, Musk noted that while these “radical” design changes were almost entirely motivated by his desire to expedite the fully-reusable rocket’s operational debut, it apparently became clear that the cheaper, faster, and easier iteration could actually end up being (in Musk’s own words) “dramatically better” than its exotic carbon-composite progenitor. — TeslaRati

BFS/Starship shows off some of its heat shield. SpaceX may be looking into an advanced NASA solution for BFR’s thermal protection system. (SpaceX)


Blue Origin Gearing Up for Next New Shepard Test Flight

Blue Origin plans to conduct the next test flight of its New Shepard suborbital vehicle targeted to early 2019 as the company moves closer to flying people into space.

The NS-10 flight will use the same propulsion module and crew capsule as the July flight, but is intended to be a more standard suborbital spaceflight. The vehicle will be carrying nine experiments provided by NASA’s Flight Opportunities program, the company said. As with all previous flights, there will be no people on this New Shepard mission, but the company noted that the research payloads play a “role in perfecting technology for a future human presence in space.” A second booster recently arrived at the site that the company says will be used for future crewed flights. — Space News

Blue Origin’s New Shepard suborbital vehicle on the pad prior to an April 29 launch. Credit: Blue Origin


NASA Opens the Floodgates for Firms with Planetary Ambitions

When NASA revealed the names of nine companies eligible for contracts to deliver payloads to the moon on robotic landers, it set off a flurry of activity among firms with related technology. “Going back to the moon with commercial technology opens the floodgates,” said Grant Anderson, president, chief executive and co-founder of Paragon Space Development Corp.

In late November, NASA selected nine companies to participate in CLPS: Astrobotic Technology, Deep Space Systems, Draper, Firefly Aerospace, Intuitive Machines, Lockheed Martin, Masten Space Systems, Moon Express and Orbit Beyond. Each of those firms is forming partnerships with additional companies, including many pairings not yet announced.

“All of the sudden there are opportunities for anyone,” said Kris Zacny, vice president and director for Honeybee Robotics Exploration Technology Group, which develops scientific instruments and in-situ resource utilization technology. — Space News

Astrobotic Technology Peregrine 1 lander concept. Credit: Astrobotic Technology


SpaceX’s Orbit-Ready Crew Dragon Nears First Trip Out to Pad 39A Atop Falcon 9

Over the past month or two, SpaceX’s Florida pad technicians have gradually begun a number of small but important modifications to Launch Complex 39A (LC-39A, Pad 39A), primarily focused on what is known as its Fixed Service Structure (FSS), a tall and rectangular tower off to the side of SpaceX’s launch mount. Notably, SpaceX has completed the demolition and removal of all extraneous Pad 39A structures related to its decades of service under the Space Shuttle program and has further modified the FSS to allow for the installation of Crew Dragon’s Crew Access Arm (CAA), completed earlier in 2018.

With those major tasks complete, SpaceX workers have since subtly modified the pad’s transporter/erector (T/E) for Crew Dragon and begun to both paint and clad the tower, both designed to minimize wear and tear from regular launch operations and coastal Florida’s omnipresent sea breeze. Captured in photos from the November 2018 launch of Es’hail-2, the tower cladding appears to be made of double-layered sheets of half-opaque black plastic, while the paint of choice is gray (and black accents) to mesh with the tower’s minimalist arm.

Given CEO Elon Musk’s well-known preference that his companies, products, and facilities look “beautiful”, this is almost certainly being done on his whim, albeit for the best. A coat of paint and minimalist arm design are probably cost a minimal amount of money and effort, but the bare minimum still easily sets SpaceX’s facilities apart from competitors like ULA and even NASA. — TeslaRati

A detailed look at SpaceX’s shiny new Crew Access Arm, installed on Pad 39A in August 2018. (Tom Cross)


“Gateway” to the Moon

Sometime in 2028, competing for attention alongside a presidential election and the return of the Summer Olympics to Los Angeles, NASA will return humans to the surface of the moon.

A lunar lander will depart the cluster of modules in an elliptical orbit around the moon, called “Gateway”, and descend. One stage will take the lander to a low lunar orbit and then separate, after which the descent module will handle the rest of the journey to the lunar surface. A crew of up to four will spend days — perhaps up to two weeks — on the surface before boarding the ascent module, which will take them back to the Gateway.

At least that’s NASA’s plan for now. A year after President Donald Trump formally directed NASA to return humans to the moon in Space Policy Directive (SPD) 1, the agency has developed the outlines of a plan to carry that out, while emphasizing the language in the policy to do so in a “sustainable” manner and with international and commercial partners. But as the agency describes two of the biggest elements of the plan, the Gateway and a “human-class” lunar lander, it’s still struggling to sell the proposal to its various stakeholders, including its own advisers. — Space News

A year after President Donald Trump formally directed NASA to return humans to the moon in Space Policy Directive (SPD) 1, the agency has developed the outlines of a plan to carry that out, while emphasizing the language in the policy to do so in a “sustainable” manner and with international and commercial partners. Credit: NASA illustration


President Trump Issues Order to Create U.S. Space Command

President Trump on Tuesday directed the Department of Defense to establish a U.S. Space Command as a unified combatant command.

Vice President Mike Pence announced the presidential decision on Tuesday during an appearance at Kennedy Space Center, Florida, along with Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson.

The president in a Dec. 18 memo instructed the Pentagon to establish a United States Space Command as a “functional Unified Combatant Command.” He also directed the Secretary of Defense to recommend officers for nomination and Senate confirmation as Commander and Deputy Commander of the new command.

The Defense Department currently has 10 combatant commands, each with a geographic or functional mission. U.S. Space Command would become the 11th. — Space News


Marshall Leads the Way to a New Era of Deep Space Exploration

In 2018, NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, continued to lay the groundwork for our nation’s future in space. Discoveries in space exploration, science and technology at Marshall are transforming our understanding of ourselves, our planet, our solar system and our universe. Flight hardware was completed and major components were tested for NASA’s Space Launch System, built to carry astronauts and cargo to the Moon, Mars and beyond. For the first time, Marshall’s Payload Operation Integration Center team exceeded 100 hours of science research in a single week. Through our partnerships with government and industry, Marshall helped the agency accomplish missions to places once thought impossible for mankind to reach. In 2018, Marshall continued to innovate and advance the technologies to take us to these deep space destinations while inspiring and engaging the next generation of engineers and scientists. Follow along in 2019 as Marshall continues to advance space exploration. — NASA


SpaceX Nears Falcon 9’s First Commercial Interplanetary Launch: A Private Moon Lander

Israeli aerospace company SpaceIL has reportedly completed the world’s first private Moon lander at the same time as the primary payload it will be tagging along with – Indonesia’s PSN-6 communications satellite – arrived in Cape Canaveral, Florida, where engineers will now prepare the spacecraft for a launch NET February 13th, 2019 atop SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket.

Recently crowned Beresheet (Hebrew for “Genesis”), the small ~600 kg (1300 lb) lunar lander will also be joined by an innovative new rideshare technology managed this time around by Spaceflight Industries, potentially giving small satellite (under 100 kg) customers the ability to tag along with a large geostationary communications satellite like PSN-6 to reach orbits far higher than those routinely accessible with rideshares and even dedicated launches. — TeslaRati


Super-Fast 3-Hour Manned Flights to ISS to Begin in 18 Months

Manned flights to the International Space Station (ISS) under an ultra-fast three-hour scheme involving circling the Earth twice, will begin in a year and a half, Dmitry Rogozin, the head of Russian state space corporation Roscosmos, said. “We are planning to repeat the launch of the Progress cargo spacecraft in an ultra-short two-rotation scheme next March. The flight time is three hours. In a year and a half, we will deliver cosmonauts and space tourists to the ISS faster than a flight from Moscow to Brussels,” Rogozin wrote. — Sputnik

Photo Credit: Roscosmos/Sergey Ryazanskiy


NASA’s Date with a Space Rock Beyond Pluto Matters

On Jan. 1, while the confetti is still fresh on the streets of Times Square, a space probe billions of miles from Earth will make a historic flyby of an object dating back to the earliest days of our solar system. Officially known as 2014 MU69, but nicknamed “Ultima Thule” by NASA, this celestial time capsule will be visited by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft at about 12:33 a.m. EST on New Year’s Day. Unlike New Horizons’ unprecedented flyby of Pluto that completely upended our knowledge of the dwarf planet in 2015, Ultima Thule is tiny — only 19 miles in diameter — compared to Pluto’s diameter of more than 1,477 miles.

Despite its small size, Ultima Thule is no ordinary space rock. A resident of the Kuiper Belt, a location beyond Neptune containing early remnants from our solar system’s formation, it has largely remained untouched for billions of years. “We don’t know what a primordial, ancient, perfectly preserved object like Ultima is, because no one’s ever been to something like this,” New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern told Geek Wire. “It’s terra incognita. It is pure exploration. We’ll just see what it’s all about — if it’s got rings, if it’s got a swarm of satellites.” — MNN

An illustration of New Horizons’ flyby of ‘Ultima Thule,’ a Kuiper Belt object that has changed little since its formation billions of years ago. (Photo: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute/Steve Gribben)


Scientists Spot Solar System’s Farthest Known Object

Astronomers have spotted the farthest known object in our solar system — and they’ve nicknamed the pink cosmic body “Farout.” The International Astronomical Union’s Minor Planet Center announced the discovery Monday. “Farout” (pronounced far-out) is about 120 astronomical units away — that’s 120 times the distance between Earth and the sun, or 11 billion miles. The previous record-holder was the dwarf planet Eris at 96 astronomical units.

The Carnegie Institution’s Scott Sheppard says the object is so far away and moving so slowly it will take a few years to determine its orbit. At that distance, it could take more than 1,000 years to orbit the sun. The astronomers spied the dwarf planet in November using a telescope in Hawaii. It’s an estimated 500 kilometers (310 miles) across. — AP

This image provided by the Carnegie Institution for Science shows an artist’s concept of a dwarf planet that astronomers say is the farthest known object in our solar system, which they have nicknamed “Farout.” The International Astronomical Union’s Minor Planet Center announced the discovery of the pink cosmic body Monday, Dec. 17, 2018. (Roberto Molar Candanosa/Carnegie Institution for Science via AP)


InSight Lander Captures First ‘Sounds’ of Wind on Mars

NASA’s InSight Mars lander has captured the sounds of the wind on Mars. The seismometer on the spacecraft detected vibrations created when the wind passed over the spacecraft’s two large solar panels. The rumbling is at the lower end of the human hearing range. Scientists described the detection as an “unplanned treat” from the seismometer, which will be placed onto the surface of the planet in the coming months. It will then be covered with a shield to prevent it from detecting wind noises in order to better detect the planet’s seismic activity. — NBC


Space Travel Will Be Even More Amazing (and Important) in 2019

Today, the biggest change I see in manned space exploration is this: the nail-biting space race of my youth between the United States and Russia is now a hard-fisted, corporate competition between high-rolling entrepreneurs. NASA, the iconic government-funded agency of my childhood, is now a bit player in the unfolding drama, a mere vendor to billionaire, profit-seeking space junkies such as Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk and Richard Branson.

Almost certainly, what’s to come in 2019 is that Unity will begin ferrying civilian passengers into space. Branson’s company Virgin Galactic – think of it as the Pan Am of commercial space carriers – has a growing list of 600-plus people ready to fork over $250,000 for the quick jaunt. Former Shuttle astronaut Andy Thomas thinks Branson will be taking them for a ride all right – one that won’t come close to living up to Branson’s hype. “It’s true that he [the passenger] will fly to the edge of space but he can’t stay there. He falls right back down. It’s really just a high-altitude airplane flight and a dangerous one at that.” — Fox News


Apollo 8: Around The Moon and Back

50 years ago, three NASA astronauts embarked on a journey that would take them “Round the moon and back”. The Apollo 8 mission proved the performance of the command and service module. This historic mission launched on December 21, 1968 to demonstrate a lunar trajectory and was the first crewed launch of the Saturn V rocket. On Christmas Eve, Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders were the first humans to orbit the Moon and the first to see an Earthrise above its surface. — NASA