by Jennifer Hurst
May 9, 2018

New Shepard Reaches Space on Eighth Test Flight

Blue Origin’s New Shepard suborbital vehicle performed its first suborbital test flight in more than four months April 29 as the company moves a step closer to flying people.

The vehicle, in the eighth test flight in the vehicle’s development program, lifted off from the company’s West Texas launch site at 1:06 p.m. Eastern.

During the 10-minute flight, the vehicle reached a peak altitude of 105.9 kilometers, near the planned altitude of 106.7 kilometers that the company said prior to liftoff was intended to “push the envelope” of the vehicle’s performance, which has previously flown to altitudes of about 100 kilometers. Company founder Jeff Bezos later tweeted that the vehicle reached a peak altitude of 107 kilometers.

New Shepard is designed to carry up to six people on a flight. Blue Origin plans to use the vehicle for suborbital space tourism as well as research. — Space News


Block 5 Rocket Launch Marks the End of the Beginning for SpaceX

Elon Musk seems to be happy with the Falcon 9 -engine booster—so, he’s moving on.

Less than eight years after its maiden launch, the Falcon 9 booster has become the most dominant rocket in the world. Modern and efficient, no rocket launched more than the 70m Falcon 9 booster launched last year. Barring catastrophe, no rocket seems likely to launch more this year. In part, SpaceX has achieved this level of efficiency by bringing a Silicon Valley mindset to the aerospace industry. The company seeks to disrupt, take chances, and, like so many relentless start-up companies, drive employees to work long hours to meet demanding engineering goals.

Although this has caused headaches for customers like NASA and some suppliers, constant tinkering has allowed SpaceX to maximize performance of this rocket. By regularly upgrading the Merlin engines, shedding weight with lighter materials, and using super-chilled rocket fuel to maximize density, the Falcon 9 rocket now is about twice as powerful as it was during its initial flight. Rarely during its more than 50 launches since June 2010 has a Falcon 9 rocket not had a handful or more changes from the previous edition.

To find a Falcon 9 launch of comparable magnitude to the forthcoming Block 5 launch, one probably has to go back to December 2015. The stakes were incredibly high then, too. Six months before, in June, SpaceX had suffered the first failure of the Falcon 9 booster, a catastrophic break-up of the second stage at about 150 seconds into the flight. The Dragon spacecraft ascending into space, laden with NASA cargo valued at more than $100 million, was lost. SpaceX spent nearly half a year assessing and fixing the problem before returning to the launch pad. For that December flight, SpaceX doubled-down on its philosophy of taking risks. — Ars Technica

Click Image to Enlarge / SpaceX has tinkered with its Falcon 9 rocket for a decade. Now, it says it’s done.


Rocket Lab Preparing to Launch Miniature NASA Satellites

Rocket Lab and NASA have carried out the integration of the CubeSat payloads scheduled to launch on the Electron rocket in the first half of 2018 for NASA’s first ever Venture Class Launch Services (VCLS) mission. The flight will constitute the smallest class of dedicated launch services used by NASA and marks a significant milestone for Rocket Lab in providing access to space for a NASA-sponsored mission of small satellites.

The launch is manifested with research and development payloads from NASA and educational institutions that will conduct a wide variety of new, on-orbit science. Applications of the CubeSats booked on the mission include research such as measuring radiation in the Van Allen belts to understand their impact on spacecraft, through to monitoring space weather. — Biz Edge


Small Rockets, Big Dreams: More Spaceports are Taking Root Across the U.S.

A ribbon of concrete runway on Colorado’s eastern plains is poised to become the cutting edge of civilian spaceflight if local boosters realize their long-held dreams to travel anywhere in the world in just minutes.

Known as Spaceport Colorado, the nascent launch complex about 30 miles east of Denver is awaiting final federal approval to join nearly a dozen sites around the country hoping to cash in on the commercialization of space travel and inexpensive satellite launches.

Because most of the sites are in out-of-the-way places, such as Kodiak Island, Alaska, or Truth or Consequences, N.M., they’ve largely remained under the radar and out of the public eye. Instead, high-profile sites like California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base — set to launch a Mars probe Saturday — grab the spotlight. — USA Today


Atlas 5 Launches NASA InSight Mars Lander

An Atlas 5 rocket successfully launched InSight, a billion-dollar NASA mission to study the interior of Mars, from California May 5.

The United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 401 lifted off from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California at 7:05 a.m. Eastern, at the beginning of a two-hour launch window. There were no serious technical problems during the countdown and dense fog at the launch site was not an issue.

The Centaur upper stage entered orbit 13 minutes after launch. After a 65-minute coast, the Centaur fired again to inject the InSight spacecraft onto a Mars-bound trajectory. InSight separated from the upper stage 93 minutes after liftoff.

Project officials said the spacecraft was in good health after launch. “We’ve received positive indication the InSight spacecraft is in good health and we are all excited to be going to Mars once again to do groundbreaking science,” said Tom Hoffman, InSight project manager, in a NASA statement.

InSight will land on Mars Nov. 26 at Elysium Planitia, a site near the Martian equator. The lander is based on the design used for the Phoenix Mars Lander mission flown a decade ago, with modifications such as a thicker heat shield and stronger parachutes to accommodate the faster entry speed of InSight and higher altitude on the Martian surface of Elysium Planitia compared to Phoenix’s landing site near the Martian north pole. — Space News

An Atlas 5 carrying NASA’s InSight Mars lander rises above the marine layer enveloping Vandenberg Air Force Base in California shortly after liftoff May 5. Credit: NASA/Cory Huston


NASA’s “Nearly Silent” Supersonic X-Plane Goes Into Production 

NASA has started production of a plane that will fly faster than the speed of sound, but will be almost inaudible from the ground below. The US space agency plans to bring supersonic speeds back to commercial air travel with the X-Plane. But unlike its predecessor Concorde, its sonic booms will be too soft to be noticed from the ground. If all goes to plan, the piloted aircraft will be built and delivered to NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Centre by the end of 2021, and will be approved for commercial use by 2025. — Dezeen


Trump Again Teases ‘Space Force’ as the Sixth Military Branch

President Donald Trump on Tuesday again hinted at the possibility of a new military service dedicated to space, saying discussions are already underway with defense officials. During a ceremony honoring the Army football team, Trump praised the players as representatives of “the five proud branches” of the military: the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps and Coast Guard. And then Trump added, “We’re actually thinking of a sixth.”

“That would be the space force,” the commander in chief said. “Does that make sense? We’re getting very big in space, both militarily and for other reasons. And we are seriously thinking of a space force.” In March, at a similar military event at Miramar Air Station in California, Trump said his new national security strategy “recognizes that space is a war-fighting domain just like the land, air and sea,” adding that “we may even have a space force” one day. — Military Times

Retired Army Col. Mark Vande Hei prepares to train inside NASA’s Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory pool near Johnson Space Center in Houston on March 1, 2017. On Tuesday, President Donald Trump said military officials are looking at creating a new military branch focused on space. (Sean Kimmons/Defense Department)


Pentagon Ramps Up Artificial Intelligence Efforts

The Pentagon has reached out to companies like Google for help connecting the military to the AI world. Under an initiative called Project Maven, the Defense Department and the Air Force are funding the development of AI algorithms to analyze drones’ live video stream. Eric Schmidt, the executive chairman of Google’s parent company Alphabet, chairs the Defense Innovation Board. The panel of private sector and government adviser has been hugely influential in raising awareness within the Pentagon of the capabilities of AI. — Space News


Space is Essential to Nuclear Deterrence

Space is an essential part of the triad of nuclear deterrence, an Air Force general says. Lt. Gen. Jack Weinstein, Air Force deputy chief of staff for strategic deterrence and nuclear integration, said that while the Pentagon plans to spend a trillion dollars over the next decade on modernizing bombers, ballistic missiles and submarines, it also needs to support space capabilities, like satellites used for secure communications and for missile warning, also in need of modernization. The Air Force is planning to spend $58 billion over the next decade on updating nuclear command, control and communications systems, and a review of those plans was due to Secretary of Defense Mattis Tuesday. — Space News

Lt. Gen. Jack Weinstein, deputy chief of staff for strategic deterrence and nuclear integration. Credit: U.S. Air Force


Ross Sees Moon as ‘Gas Station’ for Exploration 

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross says the moon could become a “gas station” for future exploration. Ross said in an interview at a conference that he sees “the moon being a type of gas station” by harnessing resources there. Asked if that could be achieved in the next decade, he said it would be “a lot sooner than that,” although most experts believe it may take considerably longer to identify potential lunar resources and test practical extraction techniques. — Washington Post


NASA’s Mini Fission Reactor Could Help Humans Survive on Mars, and It Just Cleared Early Tests 

NASA announced today that it has completed tests of its Kilopower portable nuclear fission reactor, a device designed to one day power bases on Mars or the moon. The tests met or exceeded expectations on all metrics, which means the device can now go on to more serious flight testing. The Kilopower device is still a prototype, but will be important for space expeditions where astronauts can’t bring enough supplies on their ship and must still generate power far from Earth. — Gizmodo


Lockheed Martin prepares to turn on U.S. Air Force Space Fence on Kwajalein Atoll

In June, Lockheed Martin plans to complete integration of the U.S. Air Force Space Fence on Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands and begin tracking objects, at least in a testing mode.

Full integration and testing is scheduled to begin in July as the company confirms the S-band radar array meets all contractual requirements.

“After that, we will turn it over to the Air Force for testing and trials,” said Bruce Schafhauser, Lockheed Martin Space Fence program manager.

As companies prepare to send hundreds or thousands of satellites into communications constellations in low Earth orbit, government agencies and commercial satellite operators are calling for enhanced space situational awareness and space traffic management.

The Air Force Space Fence in Kwajalein will help but Lockheed Martin is hoping to provide additional observations with a second Space Fence in Western Australia. The Air Force authorized Lockheed Martin to begin surveying the site for the second radar facility but has not yet allocated funding to build it. — Space News

Lockheed Martin is completing the Air Force Space Fence on Kwajalein Atoll. This image depicts coverage that would be provided and a second site in Western Australia. The S-band radars detects objects passing through the RF “fence” and begins tracking them. Credit: Lockheed Martin Space Systems


NASA May Send a Drone to Titan in 2025

Johns Hopkins researcher Elizabeth “Zibi” Turtle already had the coolest name in planetary science. Now she has the coolest mission, too. Almost has, we should say. Today NASA picked her Dragonfly Titan lander as one of two projects with a chance to launch under the agency’s New Horizons program in 2025 (the competition is a sample return mission to the same comet Rosetta visited in 2014). Only one of these concepts will be selected for funding in 2019 (with a cost cap of $850 million), but I can tell you which one I’d choose, even before the detailed tradeoffs are done.

I’d go to Saturn’s moon Titan, which is on anyone’s short list of the most interesting places in the solar system, both for its astrobiological potential (lots of organic material) and its weird geology (lakes of liquid methane, come on!). Mission planners once envisioned a fixed-wing aircraft to explore Titan, but a dual quadcopter would have the advantage of being able to make repeated soft landings and visit multiple sites, spaced as much as hundreds of miles apart. The air on Titan is four times as dense as it is on Earth, and gravity is one-seventh as strong, both of which make flying very practical on this otherwise alien world. — Air & Space

The Dragonfly rotorcraft could travel far from its original landing site on its own power. (NASA) Read more at


Bezos Dreams of a World with a Trillion People Living in Space

Jeff Bezos’s vision for the world that his great-grandchildren’s great-grandchildren will live in is pretty wild to imagine. The Amazon and Blue Origin boss says a trillion people will live in space, there will be “a thousand Einsteins and a thousand Mozarts” and we’ll develop other planets, leaving Earth a beautiful place to be.

“First of all, of course, I’m interested in space, because I’m passionate about it. I’ve been studying it and thinking about it since I was a 5-year-old boy,” says Bezos. “But that is not why I’m pursuing this work.” Bezos — who is currently worth $130 billion, according to Forbes — says if humanity does not become multiplanetary, eventually it will stagnate.

“I’m pursuing this work, because I believe if we don’t, we will eventually end up with a civilization of stasis, which I find very demoralizing. I don’t want my great-grandchildren’s great-grandchildren to live in a civilization of stasis. We all enjoy a dynamic civilization of growth and change,” says Bezos. — CNBC