Virgin Galactic to Fly Suborbital Flights from… Scotland?

virgin-galactic-girl

Despite the fact the UK is effectively frozen out of participating in any kind of human spaceflight activity (we can blame Maggie Thatcher for that particular stroke of genius when she masterminded the 1986 Outer Space Act), it would appear Will Whitehorn, president of Virgin Galactic, has been meeting with the UK’s science minister Lord Drayson to investigate the possibility of establishing a spaceport at Lossiemouth RAF airbase in Scotland.

Central to Galactic’s argument for the Lossiemouth airbase is the fact that the fledgling space tourism business could directly account for 2,000 new jobs in the area. The space industry already supports 68,000 jobs in the UK and contributes £2.4bn to the gross domestic product, so the spaceport would only increase investment and interest in national space endeavours.

This move is supported by Andy Green, chief exec of the software company Logica who is chairing the “Space Innovation and Growth Team” due to report to Drayson in January on ways to stimulate the British space industry. Only a few days ago, Green wrote to Drayson, pushing for a UK space agency and a national space program.

The space sector has grown 9% a year over the past decade, more than three times faster than the economy as a whole. –Jenny Davey, TimesOnline.co.uk

If this plan bares fruit for Richard Branson’s spaceflight dreams, Lossiemouth could become the third international location for Virgin Galactic’s WhiteKnightTwo/SpaceShipTwo combo to take off from. Currently, the New Mexico spaceport is under construction and Branson also plans to fly fee-paying tourists (at $200,000 a pop) through the aurora from Kiruna, Sweden.

Source: Times Online. Thanks to Dr. Lucy Rogers for the tip!

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Welcome To My Lava Tube, Premium Lunar Condo Living*

This 65-metre-wide hole in the lunar surface extends at least 80 metres down and could be an opening into a larger lunar cave (Image: ISAS/JAXA/Junichi Haruyama et al.)

Let’s face it, us soft and squidgy humans don’t react particularly well to radiation, the vacuum of space or hypervelocity meteoroids. This being the case, how do we ever hope to settle on other worlds, particularly worlds with dust for a backyard and a sky flooded in radiation from the Solar System’s biggest nuclear reactor (the Sun)? To put it mildly, it’s not going to be easy. In fact, exploring and settling on other celestial bodies will the the biggest challenge us terrestrials will face in the next century.

So we start thinking locally, we start thinking “familiar”; where could we build a habitat that’s a stone’s throw from Earth, where we can do a full-scale practical test of our colonizing skills but be only a couple of days from home?

The Moon is that world and we are currently stumbling our way toward that goal. In fact, it is (currently) one of NASA’s main priorities, to get man back to the Moon by 2020 (although the Augustine Commission report was released today and presents many more options for the future of NASA). Once we do eventually get back to the Moon, our lunar explorers will use man made habitats, but what about longer, more permanent settlements?

We’re going deeper underground

In-situ mining of materials for building habitats and using the landscape to protect settlers isn’t a new idea, but we are beginning to acquire better observations of the Earth’s only natural satellite. And now, observations from the Japanese Kaguya spacecraft (that was deliberately crashed into the lunar surface in June) have been used to scout out a possible location for a future permanent habitat.

Cavemen 2.0 (NASA)

Cavemen 2.0 (NASA)

It may be hard to believe, but the Moon was once a very hot body, where molten rock began to cool shortly after formation. This molten rock eventually solidified, but in doing so, lava burrowed out long channels known as sinuous rilles. These rilles are a sure sign that lava once flowed there. However, scientists have known for some time that beneath these rilles, lava tubes may also hide. The lava tubes formed when the remaining molten rock flowed away, leaving an encrusted layer of rock surrounding a closed network of tunnels.

A lava tube with a view

However, this is the first time a hole in the roof of one of these lava tubes has been found. This hole, for obvious reasons, has been dubbed “a skylight,” and Junichi Haruyama and the SELENE/Kaguya team have been working hard to seek out such features. Their hard work has just paid off.

This is the first time that anybody’s actually identified a skylight in a possible [lunar] lava tube,” said Carolyn van der Bogert, a co-investigator on the team from University of Münster in Germany, of the discovery in a region of the Moon’s near side in Marius Hills.

The skylight measures 65 metres wide and it is thought to extend 80 metres deep. The hole is right in the middle of a rille, indicative of the presence of a lava tube 370 metres across. It is currently unknown whether the skylight allows access to the lava tube (access may be blocked by rubble or solidified magma), but there is the tantalizing possibility that this hole could be used by astronauts to access an underground cave.

Anti-radiation living

Basalt is an extremely good material for radiation protection. It’s free real estate ready to be exploited and modified for human use,” said Penny Boston of the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology in Socorro. It’s not exactly a leap of the imagination that locations like the Marius Hills skylight could become very valuable regions when space agencies and potential lunar companies need a permanent foothold on the Moon.

A scene from the movie "Moon" with Sam Rockwell

Until we are able to set foot back on the Moon’s surface, we must rely on robotic explorers to do the reconnaissance work (indeed, that is the main priority for NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, a satellite capable of snapping images 10× sharper than this Kaguya picture), but the fact remains, features like this are very appealing to help protect us humans from the ravages of space.

Bored of the Moon? Set up home in a Martian divot!

Speaking of extraterrestrial housing options, Mars has some trendy sinkholes that might be a little more spacious than your average lunar lava tube

*Technically, it would be a “condo“; anyone living in the lava tube would own the space inside, they wouldn’t own the lava tube itself. We all know that no one can “own” the Moon don’t we? You can throw away that “Congratulations! You’re Now The Proud Owner Of One Acre Of Lunar Real Estate!” certificate, it’s about as valid as those “I Need Your Bank Account Details To Deposit $1 Million” Nigerian royalty emails.

Source: New Scientist. With a special thanks to @foundonmars for the tip!

The Ares I-X Rollout

The Ares I-X rollout from the Kennedy Space Center's Vehicle Assembly Building (from NASA TV)

The Ares I-X rollout from the Kennedy Space Center's Vehicle Assembly Building (from NASA TV)

The Ares I-X rollout began a little after 1:30 am EDT on Tuesday morning at Kennedy Space Center as planned. NASA TV was running the event live, and it was great to see the long, slender test rocket slowly edge along the crawlerway to begin its overnight journey to launchpad 39B.

Despite the pessimism surrounding the Constellation Program, I for one am very excited to see the Ares I-X blast off. It will be a sight to remember.

Ares I-X: The Beginning And The End For Constellation?

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The 327 ft tall Ares I-X is currently waiting inside Kennedy Space Center’s Vehicle Assembly Building for its delayed 4.2 mile rollout to the launchpad. Originally scheduled for Monday, the rollout was postponed by 24 hours when engineers spotted a nitrogen gas leak on Oct. 14th. It would appear the problem has been rectified and we can look forward to seeing the tallest rocket on the planet roll out to Pad 39B by Tuesday morning.

Unfortunately, the Ares I-X test flight is generating little excitement, even though NASA is heralding the scheduled Oct. 27th launch as “the First Flight of a New Era.” When there’s talk that the Constellation Program might be scrapped all together to allow for a cheaper alternative, there’s little wonder that even the most excited space flight enthusiasts are looking at the slender white frame of the Ares I-X thinking, will this be the only launch of the Constellation Program?

This negativity isn’t unfounded either. As we await the final report from the Augustine Commission (to be delivered to the White House later this week), one of the conclusions could be that Constellation is more hassle for NASA to complete rather than to scrap.

In this case Ares I-X will have become a very expensive firework.

Although it is unlikely the White House will decide on a course of action before Oct. 27th, I can’t help but think the outcome of Constellation would have been decided before the Ares I-X has even blasted off. No matter how well the four-stage test rocket performs during its 28 mile-high suborbital flight, the project could still be shelved.

But what if there are several options for NASA as the Commission Report summary suggests? Could the Ares I-X launch be the decision maker?

The Oct. 27th launch will be an amazing event in itself (and I’m dead excited to see that monster thunder into the skies), and unless an overlooked technical problem rears its ugly head, we’ll see the test launch of a brand new rocket system. What’s not awesome about that? If the Ares I-X blasts off perfectly, and the Ares design is proven to be free from vibrations and other design flaws, could a proof of concept sway the decision in favour of keeping Constellation in development? Possibly.

Regardless of the conclusions to come out of the Augustine Commission, the launch of Ares I-X will mark a crossroads for manned spaceflight. History will be written, but will history favour the Constellation Program? I don’t think I could place a bet either way.

Source: Orlando Sentinel

First Images of LCROSS Centaur Impact Plume Released

The lunar dust plume as seen 15 seconds after Centaur impact. The size of the plume was approximately 6-8 km wide at this time (NASA)

The lunar dust plume as seen 15 seconds after Centaur impact. The size of the plume was approximately 6-8 km wide at this time (NASA)

Rising a mile high and up to 5 miles wide, the impact plume of the spent Centaur rocket was observed by the NASA LCROSS shepherding probe before it travelled through the cloud of dust and crashed 4 minutes later.

The lack of an observed dust plume has been the cause of much confusion to people who watched the events unfold in the early hours of October 9th. NASA publicised the impact event as if it was going to be an explosion of dust (and possibly ice), observable from telescopes on Earth. To say the mission finale was a disappointment is an understatement.

Following the impact, NASA responded by saying that although infrared images proved the Centaur crashed on target (and a 20 meter-wide crater was created), the lack of an accompanying plume could mean that the mass hit the side of a crater (therefore blasting debris at an angle), or it hit a region devoid of dust and water ice, or the plume was simply less obvious than expected. Now that NASA has released new images of the impact, it would appear the latter may be the case; the plume was just less spectacular than the promo videos depicted.

Nine instruments on board LCROSS captured impact sequence, but until now it was unknown whether an impact plume occurred. Now NASA has confirmed that an impact flash, plume and crater were all generated.

There is a clear indication of a plume of vapor and fine debris,” said Anthony Colaprete, LCROSS principal investigator. “Within the range of model predictions we made, the ejecta brightness appears to be at the low end of our predictions and this may be a clue to the properties of the material the Centaur impacted.”

So the number-crunching continues as we wait to find out whether water was contained within that plume. However, judging by the faint cloud of ejecta, I’m thinking dreams of a H2O reservoir in Cabeus crater might be short lived.

Source: NASA, LA Times. A special thanks to @jamerz3294 for the tip!

Where Are The Protests Now?

Where's the protest?

Where's the protest?

In a discussion I seem to keep having these days when I mention that human spaceflight is actually a valuable endeavour for a nation, I’m usually met with a look of incongruity. Then the question: What has space exploration ever done for us?

I used to get a little angry about this question (of course space exploration is important!) but in actuality, I have to explain the answer because it isn’t necessarily obvious. By pushing into space, a nation can enrich its technology, improve education, boost employment in skilled areas, thereby improving the economy and generally improving a nation’s standing in the world. That’s the eco-friendly version. There are other applications such as military prowess, strategic advantage and business potential. Unfortunately, doing bold things in space requires money, and to get money you need to convince the government that it’s worth spending money on. Last time I looked, there’s no Space Race 2 going on, so we can’t rely on politics to see the necessity of space flight.

However, the US has invested billions of dollars in the exploration of space, and although NASA is a money-hungry entity, it produces results and has shaped the world as we know it. Granted, the US space agency was built on Cold War ideals and was hinged around the sole purpose of beating the Soviets to the Moon, but modern NASA is still relevant, if not more so.

Rockets and healthcare

From space, and back to Earth with a bump.

I watched a series of fascinating videos of the protests that went on in Washington D.C. on September 12th concerning President Obama’s healthcare reform plans. The Tea Party (not Twinnings, or Boston… some other tea party that didn’t have a lot of tea) exploded to life to the sound of tens of thousands of voices protesting “socialist” healthcare. Apparently, a nationalized healthcare system is a bad thing. The arguments against Obama’s plan seem rather outlandish to me, and a hardcore group of protesters (not all the protesters, just a few apparently missing a sanity gene) accused the US President of being a “communist,” “socialist,” “Marxist” and (most shockingly) a “Nazi.”

So, here we are, with a field-full of rabid protesters that have been whipped up into a frenzy by the media, special interest groups and political antagonizers. These geniuses see a nationalized healthcare system as a socialist agenda. Of course, this means communism is just down the garden path. Last time I looked, the UK wasn’t a communist state, and although the British National Health Service (NHS) isn’t perfect, it’s a damn sight better than the US health insurance insanity.

The point I’m trying to make is that tens of thousands of people descended on the US capital to protest a healthcare bill that actually seems quite sensible. Unfortunately, this huge group believe this bill is actually a government conspiracy intended to dupe the public, bankrupt the country and control the nation.

NASA losses

Now let’s wind back the clock to last year, when it was announced NASA would be shedding thousands of jobs when the space shuttle is retired. More recently, a task group was formed to discuss NASA’s options considering its budget isn’t going to grow any time soon — unfortunately, Bush’s “Vision for Space Exploration” can’t be done because the Constellation Program will cost too much. Now the Augustine Commission has set out some plans that may curtail NASA’s big projects, possibly even cancelling Constellation.

To top all this off, there is a 5-year gap (minimum) between the shuttle being retired and Constellation taking over (if that even happens), that means there will be at least 5 years the US will have without a manned launch vehicle. Yes, the US has gone through this before (between the end of the Apollo Program in 1970 and the Shuttle Program in 1982), but this time we could lose access to the space station, a $100 billion project the US is heavily invested in.

Fortunately, US companies are seeing business opportunities in space, so given enough funding, start-ups like SpaceX could start ferrying NASA astronauts into LEO sooner rather than later. There are also other nations involved in the space station and they can give us a lift into space. Unfortunately, apart from the Shuttle, there’s only one other spacecraft that’s human-rated in the world. That’s Soyuz.

Russian Roulette

Soyuz is great, it’s a sturdy vehicle and it’s received little complaint from the astronauts and cosmonauts that have been ferried around in it (well, most of the time). The Russian space agency will basically be offering NASA taxi rides into space so the US can still use the International Space Station.

The cost? $50 million per seat.

Wow, what a bargain. The space shuttle costs the best part of a billion dollars to launch every time. Compare that with $50 million, it almost seems as if this 5-year gap is a good thing. It might save NASA some money!

However, in the process of retiring the shuttle, skilled US jobs will be lost. Even the transition from the shuttle program to Constellation will cause a re-shuffle of NASA employees. Last year, Senator Bill Nelson pointed out that shedding jobs from the US space agency, only to rely on a Russian launch vehicle, will have the effect of generating jobs in Russia. This might seem like an over-exaggeration, but it may indirectly be the case.

The added concern is that the $50 million value per Soyuz seat could increase. After all, US-Russia relations aren’t exactly toasty, the Russian space agency could set its own price for taxi rides to the space station. NASA money will be spent, not on advancing US spaceflight capabilities, but on another nation’s spaceflight capabilities. Sure, NASA and Roscosmos are co-operating now, but both are government-backed entities and that co-operation could turn south during the next East-West political upset.

Conclusion

In summary, until US spaceflight companies develop human-rated space vehicles, or until the Constellation Project (or equivalent) is finished, the US will be wholly dependent on Russia for human spaceflight. NASA will be paying a premium rate for that privilege.

So when I see thousands of individuals crowding on Capitol Hill, angrily protesting about the idiotic belief that the President of the USA is on the verge of creating a communist state, I think about NASA and the fact that the US space agency has been forced to pay for seats on board a spaceship maintained by an ex-communist state the US government is having problems with.

Where are the protests now?

The H-II Transfer Vehicle (HTV-1) Photographed… from 300km Below

The Japanese HTV-1 taken 3 days after launch at an altitude below 300km (©Ralf Vandebergh)

The Japanese HTV-1 taken 3 days after launch at an altitude below 300km (©Ralf Vandebergh)

I first came across Ralf Vandebergh’s outstanding astrophotography when I was inquiring about a “mystery” object that appeared to be stalking the International Space Station (ISS) in July. As it turned out, it wasn’t a UFO, it was in fact a Russian Progress re-supply space vehicle testing out a new automated docking procedure with the orbiting outpost. Vandebergh managed to image the ISS and Progress vehicle with amazing clarity from his home in Wittem, the Netherlands.

HTV-1 approaches the ISS on Sept. 17th (©Ralf Vandebergh)

HTV-1 approaches the ISS on Sept. 17th (©Ralf Vandebergh)

Today, he’s done it again, only this time his target was the first flight of the robotic Japanese H-II Transfer Vehicle, HTV-1.

On day 3 of the mission (Sept. 13th) to supply the ISS with over 4 tonnes of food, water, fuel and equipment, Vandebergh captured this incredibly detailed picture of the vehicle, speeding overhead at an altitude of just under 300km (pictured top). He also took a shot of the HTV-1 as it was approaching the ISS on Sept. 17th (right).

I’m totally in awe of these shots, and there’s a lot more where this came from. In Vandebergh’s gallery there are pictures of spacewalking astronauts, shuttle cockpits and amazingly detailed portraits of the ISS… all taken with a camera, through a telescope, on terra firma. Enjoy.

For reference, here’s a shot of the HTV-1 from the ISS shortly before docking:

The HTV-1 approaches the space station on Sept. 17th (NASA)

The HTV-1 approaches the space station on Sept. 17th (NASA)