by Jennifer Hurst
October 22, 2018

Branson: Virgin Galactic Spaceflight is Weeks Away

Richard Branson says Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo will be in space in “weeks, not months.” Branson, in an interview Tuesday in Singapore, said the suborbital spaceflight company is “more than tantalizingly close” to actually reaching space, adding that he expected to fly “in months and not years.” He didn’t offer a more specific timeline, other than to say that “we have got a very, very exciting couple of months ahead.” SpaceShipTwo made its last powered flight test in July. — CNBC


How American Space Launch Left Europe in the Dust

The view of the resurgent U.S. spaceflight is raising alarms across the Atlantic.

The United States space industry is booming, and not everyone is excited about it. The Europeans, who dominated commercial spaceflight before the rise of American upstarts like SpaceX, are suddenly worried that the America’s effort “now represents a further strong challenge to European competitiveness and freedom to act in space.”

That hand-wringing comes from a new report by a leading European space advocacy group. ASD-Eurospace fears that Europe has not only lost its comfortable lead in commercial spaceflight, but also is falling far behind the curve and won’t have the launch hardware and spacecraft to keep up.

“U.S. commercial actors are seen as the 3rd pillar of the U.S. national space enterprise strategy [aside from NASA and the Pentagon] and fully participate as such in the comprehensive approach to U.S. space dominance,” reads the ASD-Eurospace report. In other words, the uniquely American approach of government support and investment in private space is paying dividends, creating an industry that could swallow the comparatively moribund European effort. “Europe must react quickly and define independently its own ambitions.” — Popular Mechanics


To the Moon, Mars … and Beyond

As it celebrated its 60th birthday last week, NASA unveiled its new master plan for a return to the moon and manned trips to Mars and beyond. The 21-page National Space Exploration Campaign is the agency’s response to President Trump’s Space Policy Directive-1, telling NASA to launch an “innovative and sustainable program … to enable human expansion across the solar system,” first with missions beyond Low Earth Orbit, leading to manned missions to Luna and eventually Mars. Nearly 50 years after Neil Armstrong first walked the moon, mankind can’t go further out than LEO, where the International Space Station orbits. NASA aims to regain the ability to reach lunar orbit, first with the Orion craft being built jointly with the European Space Agency. Even as private companies develop the capability to carry all needed cargo and personnel as far as LEO, NASA will build the Space Launch System, “the most powerful rocket in history,” to send 140-ton payloads into deeper space. That will allow it to start construction in 2022 of the moon-orbiting Gateway platform, which will host missions to the lunar surface and serve as a base for assembling craft to go beyond the moon. New technologies will be vital, including a way to power a manned interplanetary craft — almost certainly a nuclear drive supplemented by solar cells. Assuming engineers can solve such challenges, the agency aims to start sending crews to Mars orbit in the 2030s. — New York Post


Two Orbiters Begin Their Long Journey to Mercury

One might think it’s a relatively easy thing to reach Mercury, the innermost planet in the Solar System. At its closest approach, Mercury is just 77 million kilometers from Earth, or not all that much farther than the closest that Earth comes to Mars. The Earth-Mars transit typically only takes about six months. However, the Sun’s enormous gravity makes putting a spacecraft into orbit around Mercury quite difficult. How much gravity are we talking about? The g-force at the surface of the Earth is 9.8 meters/second^2. By comparison, the Sun’s gravity is nearly 30 times greater, at 274 m/s^2. To overcome this gravity, a mission intended to reach a stable orbit around the tiny planet of Mercury (with a gravity of just 3.7 m/s^2) therefore requires an enormous amount of energy—more than is required to send a probe to Pluto. Over the course of such a mission, a spacecraft must build up energy to resist the Sun’s gravitational pull and slide into orbit around Mercury. — ArsTechnica

The Ariane 5 vehicle on the launch pad in Kourou, French Guiana, with its BepiColombo payload.


Space Force to be the Topic of Next National Space Council Meeting

Vice President Mike Pence, in an Oct. 12 tweet, said that the interagency group will discuss “progress made and next steps” on the formation of a Space Force, a plan formally announced by President Trump at the council’s last meeting in June. The president “has rightly called for the creation of a 6th branch of the Armed Forces to advance US dominance in space,” Pence wrote. “#SpaceForce is an idea whose time has come. On 10/23, the National Space Council will meet [at National Defense University] to discuss progress made & next steps to implement POTUS’ vision.” —


NASA Issues Call for Payloads to go on Commercial Lunar Landers

As NASA evaluates proposals for commercially developed small lunar landers, the agency is now seeking payloads that could fly on those spacecraft despite concerns from some scientists that they don’t know if their experiments are compatible with those landers.

NASA released Oct. 18 a formal solicitation for “Lunar Surface Instrument and Technology Payloads” that seeks experiments for flight on lander missions procured by the agency’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program. NASA plans to select 8 to 12 experiments next year for launch no earlier than 2020, with an overall budget of between $24 and 36 million in the first year of the program. — Space News

NASA is seeking proposals for scientific and technology demonstration payloads that could fly on commercial lunar landers as soon as 2020. Credit: Astrobotic


SAOCOM 1A Mission

On Sunday, October 7 at 7:21 p.m. PDT, SpaceX successfully launched the SAOCOM 1A satellite from Space Launch Complex 4E (SLC-4E) at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The satellite was deployed about 12 minutes after liftoff.

Following stage separation, Falcon 9’s first stage returned to land at SpaceX’s Landing Zone 4 (LZ-4) at Vandenberg Air Force Base. This was SpaceX’s first land landing on the West Coast. LZ-4 is built on the former site of Space Launch Complex 4W, from which Titan rockets were previously launched. — SpaceX


SOFIA Observations Reveal Possible Key to Black Hole Activity

Collimated jets provide astronomers with some of the most powerful evidence that a supermassive black hole lurks in the heart of most galaxies. Some of these black holes appear to be active, gobbling up material from their surroundings and launching jets at ultra-high speeds, while others are quiescent, even dormant. Why are some black holes feasting and others starving? Recent observations from the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, or SOFIA, are shedding light on this question.

SOFIA data indicate that magnetic fields are trapping and confining dust near the center of the active galaxy, Cygnus A, and feeding material onto the supermassive black hole at its center.

The unified model, which attempts to explain the different properties of active galaxies, states that the core is surrounded by a donut-shaped dust cloud, called a torus. How this obscuring structure is created and sustained has never been clear, but these new results from SOFIA indicate that magnetic fields may be responsible for keeping the dust close enough to be devoured by the hungry black hole. In fact, one of the fundamental differences between active galaxies like Cygnus A and their less active cousins, like our own Milky Way, may be the presence or absence of a strong magnetic field around the black hole. — SciTechDaily


Satellite Operators Offer Communications for Autonomous Ships

In recent years, companies have started to develop and test technologies aimed at improving shipping efficiency. Eventually, that work could lead to semi-autonomous and autonomous operations.

“People are looking at remote engine monitoring, IT support and electronic chart updates,” said Gerbrand Schalkwijk, Inmarsat Maritime’s deputy president.

“Ultimately, when all these pieces come together, you get to a stage where more activities are not done on the ship anymore but can be managed remotely. If everything works out well, also from a regulatory and insurance perspective, you may see autonomous vessels.” Satellite communications providers are establishing partnerships to offer enhanced ship-to-shore communications links for today’s ships and to prepare to support autonomous vessels. — Space News

Rolls-Royce developed this concept for bridge operations of remote cargo vessels with Finland’s VTT Technical Research Centre. Credit: Rolls-Royce


This Chinese City Wants to Launch an ‘Artificial Moon’ to Replace Street Lights

The streets of Chengdu in western China could soon be lit up by an artificial satellite moon in the night-time, rather than the more conventional streetlights if an ambitious plan by a private aerospace company gets the go-ahead.

The thinking is to save a hefty sum in electricity costs, according to Wu Chunfeng, chairman of the Chengdu Aerospace Science and Technology Microelectronics System Research Institute Co., who is behind the scheme.

Rather than using up energy here on Earth, the satellite would reflect the Sun’s rays from the other side of the planet back on to Chengdu.

Details are thin on the ground, but it sounds as though solar panel-like wings with a special reflective coating would be used to redirect sunbeams from space.

The illumination on the ground would be about eight times what you would expect from the actual Moon, Chunfeng says.

Speaking at an entrepreneur conference, Wu said the satellite will allow the light to be carefully controlled and kept to an area 10-80 kilometers (around 6-50 miles) in diameter. The light wouldn’t be strong enough to interfere with nocturnal wildlife activities – or at least no more than streetlights. — Science Alert