by Jennifer Hurst
May 31, 2018


Success! Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity Space Plane Aces 2nd Powered Test Flight

Virgin Galactic’s newest space plane has taken to the skies again.

The suborbital SpaceShipTwo vehicle, known as VSS Unity, completed its second-ever powered test flight today (May 29), soaring high over California’s Mojave Desert.

“The focus of today’s flight was to expand our understanding of the spaceship’s supersonic handling characteristics and control system’s performance with vehicle parameters that were closer to the ultimate commercial configuration,” Virgin Galactic representatives wrote in a statement. “This involved shifting the vehicle’s center of gravity rearward via the addition of passenger seats and related equipment.” [Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity Spaceliner in Pictures]

During the flight, they added, VSS Unity fired its rocket motor for 31 seconds, as planned, and reached a top speed of Mach 1.9 and a maximum altitude of 114,500 feet (34,900 meters). (Mach 1 is the speed of sound, which is about 767 mph, or 1,235 km/h, at sea level.)

The two-pilot, six-passenger SpaceShipTwo is hauled aloft by a carrier aircraft known as WhiteKnightTwo and then is dropped from an altitude of about 50,000 feet (15,000 m). The space plane then engages its onboard rocket motor to blast itself upward. —

VSS Unity is carried aloft by Virgin Galactic’s WhiteKnightTwo aircraft on May 29, 2018. Credit: Virgin Galactic via Twitter –Click Image to Enlarge



SpaceX to Fly ‘Hybrid’ Falcon 9 With Block 4 and 5

SpaceX intends to “thread the needle” with a unique hybrid Falcon 9 launch of his company’s SES-12 communications satellite on June 4th.

SpaceX fired up the nine engines on the Falcon 9 rocket’s first stage last week during a static fire test on May 24. The Falcon 9’s first stage was last used in September 2017, when it launched the robotic X-37B space plane for the U.S. Air Force and then landed successfully. The booster is an older “Block 4” model. (SpaceX’s newest variant, the “Block 5,” debuted this month) and is not expected to make a landing after the SES-12 mission. —


SpaceX Propulsion Guru Looks Ahead to Raptor Rocket Engines for Mars

SpaceX’s success owes a lot to the tenacity of the company’s billionaire founder, Elon Musk, but some of the credit has to go to the guy who designed the engines that make the rockets go. That would be Tom Mueller, who was one of SpaceX’s first employees back in 2002 and now serves as its propulsion chief technology officer.

“[Merlin] is a world-class engine,” Mueller said. “This is very easy to make, very low-cost and extremely reliable. Very proud of it. And another thing that this engine had designed into it was fast and deep throttling. Fast and deep throttling allowed us to land the rocket, so this basically enabled recovery of the vehicles.”

Mueller dropped some hints about the more powerful Raptor engines to come. The methane-fueled Raptor is expected to be twice as powerful as the Merlin 1D, with liftoff thrust of 380,000 pounds. The BFR’s first-stage booster will use 31 of the engines to pack more punch than the Saturn V did during the Apollo era. Mueller said he’s been mulling over the Raptor for about a decade. The engine doesn’t make use of the Merlin design, but goes instead with a full-flow, staged-combustion system that requires a clean-sheet design. — Geek Wire

SpaceX’s tests one of the Raptor rocket engine preburners at NASA’s Stennis Space Center


Blue Origin Goes All In on Moon Settlements 

Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos says his Blue Origin space venture will work with NASA as well as the European Space Agency to create a settlement on the moon. And even if Blue Origin can’t strike public-private partnerships, Bezos will do what needs to be done to make it so, he said here at the International Space Development Conference on Friday night.

Bezos laid out his vision for lunar settlement during a fireside chat with yours truly, which took place just after he received the National Space Society’s Gerard K. O’Neill Memorial Award. In the short run, Blue Origin’s objective is to reduce the cost of access to space — initially with its New Shepard suborbital spaceship, and then with its orbital-class New Glenn rocket in the 2020s.

In the long run, Bezos’ vision is to smooth the way for millions of people working in space. Those people just might live and work in hollowed-out asteroids — a concept that was proposed decades ago by O’Neill, a Princeton physicist whose ideas on space settlement fueled Bezos’ passion for the final frontier. The way Bezos sees it, moving heavy industry into solar-powered space outposts is the only way to ensure that our planet can cope with the rising demand for energy, and the stress that growing populations will put on Earth’s environment. — Geek Wire


Branson Says He Will Go to Space in ‘Months Not Years’

Sir Richard Branson says he is in training to be an astronaut and his first trip to space could be in “months not years”. Branson said that he was close to achieving his long-held ambition of space travel. “We’re talking about months away, not years away – so it’s close. There are exciting times ahead.” The 67-year old said he was in a serious training regime to prepare his body for the experience.

“I’m going for astronaut training; I’m going for fitness training, centrifuge and other training, so that my body will hopefully cope well when I go to space. If you’re going to really enjoy the experience, the fitter you can be the better. Instead of doing one set of tennis every morning and every evening, I’m doing two sets. I’m going kiting and biking – doing whatever it takes to make me as fit as possible.” — City A.M.

Sir Richard Branson (R) is in serious astronaut training. Source: Getty


3-D Printers and Robotic Arms: How One Startup Plans to Build Colonies in Space 

When history’s pilgrims and pioneers arrived in a new territory, they used the land’s natural resources to build their settlements. Space colonists, on the other hand, will have to bring materials from Earth and assemble them on Mars. Andrew Rush, president and CEO of space-based manufacturing firm Made In Space, believes the process of creating off-world infrastructure will be similar to building IKEA furniture. Only the parts will be made with an advanced 3-D printer and put together by an autonomous robot.

Made In Space has been at the forefront of space manufacturing since it was founded in 2010. Four years ago, the California-based company’s 3-D printer became the first manufacturing device in space when it was launched to the International Space Station (ISS) as part of a NASA demonstration project. The goal was to prove that a 3-D printer could be developed for use in zero gravity, and on 17 Dec. 2014 the device produced its first tool — a ratchet wrench — using a design file transmitted from Earth. — Forbes

This space-optimized wrench was 3-D printed on the International Space Station. Photo Credit: NASA


Trump’s New Space Policy Directive 2 Could Make Life Easier for SpaceX and Others

The Trump administration’s push to ease regulations on private industry is no longer confined to Earth.

Yesterday (May 24), President Donald Trump signed Space Policy Directive-2 (SPD-2), which instructs the secretary of transportation to devise a new regulatory regime for launch and re-entry activities, and to consider requiring just a single license for all such commercial operations. President Trump’s Space Policy Directive – 2 reforms America’s commercial space regulatory framework, ensuring our place as a leader in space commerce. “This time, we will not only plant our flag and leave our footprint. We will establish a foundation for an eventual mission to Mars.”

“The president is committed to ensuring that the federal government gets out of the way and unleashes private enterprise to support the economic success of the United States,” White House officials wrote in an SPD-2 fact sheet that was released yesterday.

The thrust of SPD-2 should come as no surprise, experts say. After all, the Trump administration has made it a priority to roll back or streamline regulations in many other parts of the economy, from banking to the energy industry.”

President Trump’s Space Policy Directive – 2 reforms America’s commercial space regulatory framework, ensuring our place as a leader in space commerce. “This time, we will not only plant our flag and leave our footprint. We will establish a foundation for an eventual mission to Mars.” —

President Donald Trump holds the signed copy of Space Policy Directive 2 in the Oval Office May 24, 2018 with Vice President Mike Pence, National Space Council Executive Secretary Scott Pace and Deputy Executive Secretary and Chief of Staff of the National Space Council Jared Stout. Credit: White House Photo by Shealah Craighead


How America Will Launch More Rockets, And Faster

In the 1960s, a rocket launch was big news all over the world. Sixty years later, it’s still a big deal. Sure, SpaceX has leaped forward with reusable vehicles, but the ability to make space travel a reliable, everyday event is still a way off.

The U.S. government and some private companies want to change that. The Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is putting up $10 million to encourage launch firms to get faster and nimbler about traveling to space. The goal of the Rapid Launch Challenge is to hurl a small satellite into orbit with only a day’s notice—or less—from virtually anywhere in the country. — Bloomberg

One of the earliest goals of SpaceX and its billionaire owner, Elon Musk, was to make rockets not just reusable but to relaunch them quickly, on consecutive days. Other companies, such as Arizona-based Vector Launch Inc., also see reusable rocketry and frequent, low-cost launches as the key to successfully commercializing space.


FAA Paving the Way for New Supersonic Era

The FAA has launched two rulemakings that the agency said are designed to pave the way for development of civil supersonic aircraft. The first involves proposed noise certification for supersonic aircraft and the second is a clarification of procedures required to obtain special flight authorization to conduct supersonic flight-testing in the U.S. Neither rulemaking will rescind the current prohibition of supersonic flight over land without special FAA authorization, the agency added.

It is working in concert with the International Civil Aviation Organization Committee on Aviation Environmental Protection on noise and emissions standards for future supersonic aircraft, as well as collaborating with other national aviation authorities. — AIN Online

The FAA plans to publish proposed rules by early next year that would outline noise certification for supersonic aircraft and clarify procedures required to obtain special flight authorization to conduct supersonic flight-testing in the U.S. This would enable development of civil supersonic aircraft such as the Aerion AS2 business jet. (Photo: Aerion Corp.)


U.S. Military Seeks to Be More Lethal, Including in Space, Mattis Says

The U.S. military is seeking to be more lethal in all domains, including space, Defense Secretary James N. Mattis said yesterday. Mattis said U.S. Northern Command will have to change to meet the challenges of the future, to include space-related security challenges. “As the threats to North America evolve, we’ll have to evolve the command, too,” he said. “It will continue to adapt from what it does, incorporating cyber defenses, outer space priorities and, of course, the air-breathing threats that we’ll have to stay alert to.”

Mattis said changes start with business reforms inside the Pentagon. He noted the Defense Department is currently not adopting best practices from industry. “We want to make the military more lethal in outer space and cyberspace, at sea, on land, and in the air,” Mattis said. The department, he added, also wants to strengthen relations with U.S. partners and allies. The department needs to examine the changing character of war, to include issues like artificial intelligence, hypersonics and outer space activities, according to Mattis. — AFSPC


New Head Of Roscosmos Is Under Formal U.S. Sanction

Russian President Vladimir Putin has nominated former Deputy PM Dmitry Rogozin to head the State Space Corporation Roscosmos. “I will do everything possible and necessary to live up to your trust,” Rogozin told the Russian leader. Unfortunately for Rogozin, he is among the Russian individuals who are sanctioned by the U.S. under a 2014 Executive Order blocking access to U.S. property of individuals involved in Russia’s taking of Crimea from Ukraine. — NASA Watch


This is What America’s New Space Shuttles Look Like 

US astronauts haven’t had their own ride into orbit since the space shuttle was retired in 2011. Two private companies are racing to replace it and become the first to fly astronauts for NASA. Boeing and SpaceX are being paid billions of dollars to build and operate crewed space capsules that will take humans to the International Space Station. NASA and the two companies recently shared new pictures of the astronauts and their custom spacesuits training for their flights with simulated missions in mock-up capsules. — Quartz


Blue Origin: Landing Ship For New Glenn Rocket

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos is very much in the space race. Development of the company’s New Glenn rocket and associated infrastructure seem to be moving along nicely. Bezos said Blue Origin had already purchased a landing ship for the first stage of the rocket (think drone ships that SpaceX uses to land the Falcon 9 first stages) and that work to refit the recovery ship would start soon.

The New Glenn rocket, which the company has been working on for 5 years, would have a reusable booster stage, while the second stage would be expendable. Reusability of the rocket is a key component to the success of private enterprise in space development, since the costs of setting up such a company runs into billions of dollars (Bezos has, and invested much of that money in Blue Origin). To demonstrate operable reusability, Bezos said he would want to fly the rocket’s booster stage 100 times. — IB Times


How NASA Will Unlock the Secrets of Quantum Mechanics Aboard the ISS

An Antares rocket launched from Virginia before sunrise this morning and is on its way to the International Space Station. Its 7,400 pounds of cargo include an experiment that will chill atoms to just about absolute zero—colder than the vacuum of space itself. The Cold Atom Laboratory (CAL) is set to create Bose-Einstein condensates on board the ISS. But what’s a Bose-Einstein condensate? And why make it in space?

“Essentially, it’s going to allow us to do different kinds of things than we’d be able to do on Earth,” said Gretchen Campbell. Bose-Einstein condensates are collections of certain atoms (like rubidium, for example) held motionless by lasers, which cools them to temperatures just above absolute zero. These systems magnify the mind-boggling effects of quantum mechanics to nearly macroscopic scales, making them easier to study. Scientists have used Bose-Einstein condensates to create entirely new states of matter, quantum entangle thousands of atoms. — Gizmodo


SpaceX Launches Five Iridium Satellites and Twin Science Spacecraft

A SpaceX Falcon 9 still sporting soot from its last mission successfully launched May 22 with five Iridium Next satellites and two science satellites for NASA and the German Research Center for Geosciences. The rocket, reusing a first stage booster that successfully launched Northrop Grumman’s failed Zuma mission in January, took off from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California.

The twin Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment Follow On (GRACE-FO) satellites separated from the rocket’s upper stage approximately 11 minutes later. Iridium’s five spacecraft separated one by one around 65 minutes into the mission. SpaceX did not attempt to recover the Falcon 9’s first stage. The rocket was a Block 4 version, designed for two to three reflights of the same first stage.

The company did try to recover the payload fairings, used to protect the satellites as the rocket exited the atmosphere, but was unsuccessful. The fairings landing in the Pacific Ocean after deploying parachutes to slow their descent. SpaceX’s launch narrator said a recovery vessel named Mr. Steven “came very close” to catching them using a giant upward facing net. Mr. Steven is so far 0 for 3 trying to catch the fairings. — Space News


Paul Allen’s Space Plane Prepares for its Coming Out Party

Stratolaunch, the space startup established by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen in 2011, is banking on this year being a milestone in achieving its vision of the leading launch company for those who want to get to space at lower costs to help solve problems here on earth. “Paul is very interested in the small sat community, the entrepreneurs, the folks who are trying to invent new things and actually help us solve world problems,” says CEO Jean Floyd. “So we start there and try to help that community first.”

Stratolaunch is eyeing a host of small satellite developers to hitch a ride into orbit on the world’s largest airplane, which it is designing to launch satellites into orbit via a rocket tucked under the wings. The company plans to flight test the all-composite aircraft, which will rely on six Boeing 747 engines for the first time later this year, according to Floyd.

But already the company is collecting letters of intent from companies interested in launching satellites at lower cost and with more flexibility than traditional space rockets. “The ride share is getting very difficult for small sats, so they’re looking for something a little faster, a little more flexible and cheaper than a ride share, where you have to get in line and wait,” he said. — Politico


Massive Air Launch System Promises Reduced Costs

Air launching a vehicle to orbit is not new. Orbital ATK has been releasing the Pegasus rocket from a Lockheed L-1011 for 21 years and Virgin Galactic is poised to begin test flights of the LauncherOne from beneath the WhiteKnightTwo (WK2) carrier aircraft sometime next year. But the enormous carrier vehicle under development by Vulcan Aerospace’s Stratolaunch Systems takes the concept to an entirely new level. The six-engine, 385-ft.-span aircraft is designed to loft medium rockets. — Aviation Week


Rocket Crafters Tests Hybrid Engine for Intrepid Rocket

Another small booster company tests its engine. In a key step toward developing its Intrepid booster, Rocket Crafters has test fired a small-scale engine for 10 seconds. Florida Today reports the company’s engine runs on a plastic-based hybrid fuel and that the Intrepid rocket could begin launching as soon as 2020. Under present designs, the Intrepid will carry up to half a ton into low Earth orbit. Rocket Crafters has already won a $650,000 contract from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to help develop a larger 5,000-pound thrust engine. — Florida Today


Johns Hopkins Engineers Helping NASA Restore Links to Long-Lost ‘Zombie’ Satellite

When aerospace engineers launch a satellite, they don’t expect it to last forever. So when the NASA orbiter known as IMAGE disappeared from view after five years in orbit, few were alarmed. What did stun the field came last January, when an amateur satellite watcher spotted IMAGE in the skies again after a dozen years — and realized that it was still trying to talk to Earth.

“I’ve been in this field since the late 1980s, and it almost never happens that a lost spacecraft is found again, especially after so long,” said J.E. Hayes. “IMAGE is this zombie that came back to life.” Now space scientists across the United States are working on the long-lost spacecraft again, trying to help NASA keep steady contact and assert control. Among them is a team at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel.

It was Bill Dove, an engineer who manages the Hopkins lab’s Satellite Communications Facility, and his colleague Tony Garcia, lead engineer in APL’s Space Exploration Sector, who led the way in locking down communication with the $150 million craft, first launched in 2000. They’ve spent months downloading its signals and feeding them to NASA. — Baltimore Sun


Blastoff! How to See a Rocket Launch In Person This Summer

It’s not just for the pros: With a little planning and flexibility, anybody can go watch a rocket blast off. – Click Link

This guide goes through each of the three U.S. sites that have rocket launches this summer: Kennedy Space Center/Cape Canaveral in Florida, Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia and Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. It tells you where to go, what to expect and what launches to watch for this summer. —

Photo Credit: SpaceX

Photo Credit: by Karl Tate, Infographics Artist


Theoretical Physicist’s Thoughts on DOD’s Warp Drive and Faster-Than-Light Travel Study

Sometime after August 2008, the US Department of Defense contracted dozens of researchers to look into some very, very out-there aerospace technologies, including never-before-seen methods of propulsion, lift, and stealth. Two researchers came back with a 34-page report for the propulsion category, titled “Warp Drive, Dark Energy, and the Manipulation of Extra Dimensions.” The document is dated April 2, 2010, though it was only recently released by the Defense Intelligence Agency.

The authors suggest we may not be too far away from cracking the mysteries of higher, unseen dimensions and negative or “dark energy,” a repulsive force that physicists believe is pushing the universe apart at ever-faster speeds. However, Sean Carroll, a theoretical physicist at Caltech who studies and follows the topics covered by the report, had a lot of cold water to pour on the report’s optimism.

“It’s bits and pieces of theoretical physics dressed up as if it has something to do with potentially real-world applications, which it doesn’t,” Carroll said. “This is not crackpot. This is not the Maharishi saying we’re going to use spirit energy to fly off the ground — this is real physics. But this is not something that’s going to connect with engineering anytime soon, probably anytime ever.” — Business Insider

A 1998 illustration of a spacecraft using negative energy to warp space-time and travel faster than light.Les Bossinas/NASA