Space is not just the final frontier. It’s the citizen-science frontier. Thanks to rapid advances in technology, it’s now possible for citizen scientists to build high-quality space-science hardware with off-the-shelf components.

Interest in citizen science and participatory exploration has exploded in recent years. New technologies are making it easier for private citizens  to become involved in the scientific process. More and more, the professional scientific community is recognizing the importance of contributions made by dedicated amateurs. Citizen scientists are discovering exoplanets and dinosaurs, monitoring climate and endangered species, and helping to map the human genome.

The development of low-cost reusable suborbital spacecraft will be the next great enabler, allowing citizens to participate in space exploration and space science.

Citizens in Space, a project of the United States Rocket Academy, is riding this new wave of citizen science citizen space exploration.

XCOR Lynx with Atsa Suborbital Observatory space telescope

For the first phase of our project, we have acquired an initial contract for 10 suborbital spaceflights with one of the new space transportation companies — XCOR Aerospace. This represents, to the best of our knowledge, the largest single bulk purchase of suborbital flights to date. We will be making payload space on these flights available to citizen scientists and to professional researchers who play by our open-source rules. We expect to fly up to 100 small experiments in our initial flight campaign. For information on submitting payloads, see our Call for Experiments.

Citizens in Space will also select and train 10 citizen astronauts to fly as payload operators. We have three astronaut candidates already in training. We’ll be recruiting seven more over the next 12 to 24 months.

For more information on our program, click here.

SpaceX successfully launched a Falcon 9 rocket today, on its third mission to the International Space Station. The Falcon 9 successfully deployed its secondary CubeSat payloads, and the Dragon capsule is now on its way to ISS.

The hoped-for test of the Falcon 9 first-stage recovery may not be successful, however. SpaceX founder Elon Musk said the chances of recovering the first stage were not looking good due to high sea states. (Waves over six feet have been reported.) SpaceX previously estimated that the chances of recovering the stage on the first test mission were low, probably no more than 20-30%, and several trials will likely be needed to achieve success.

[Update: Apparently, the first-stage landing went went better than expected. A tweet from Elon Musk says, "Data upload from tracking plane shows landing in Atlantic was good! Several boats enroute through heavy seas. Flight computers continued transmitting for 8 seconds after reaching the water. Stopped when booster went horizontal.]

Leave A Comment, Written by Astro1 on April 18th, 2014 , SpaceX

Just ahead of the SpaceX 3 mission to the International Space Station, SpaceX conducted a test flight of the Falcon 9 Reusable first stage at its test facility in McGregor, Texas. On April 17, The Falcon 9R reached altitude of 250 meters, hovered, then landed.

Falcon 9R replaces the earlier Grasshopper test vehicle, which had only a single engine. SpaceX says the new vehicle is essentially a complete Falcon 9 v1.1 first stage with legs, although some sources claim it has only three engines rather the full nine. During the first test, the legs were fixed, but they will be retracted during future tests. The rocket will move to New Mexico for higher-altitude flights at a more remote site.

Leave A Comment, Written by Astro1 on April 18th, 2014 , SpaceX

Artist's conception of Kepler 186-f

Astronomers using NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope have discovered the first Earth-size planet orbiting a star in the “habitable zone” — the range of distance from a star where liquid water might pool on the surface of an orbiting planet. The discovery of Kepler-186f confirms that planets the size of Earth exist in the habitable zone of stars other than our sun.

While planets have been found in the habitable zone before, but all were at least 40 percent larger in size than Earth, and understanding their makeup is challenging. Kepler-186f is more reminiscent of Earth, NASA says.

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Leave A Comment, Written by Astro1 on April 17th, 2014 , Astrobiology, Astronomy, Space Settlement

SkySat-1 captured this video of downtown Dubai on April 9, 2014. The video shows Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world, which appears to move due to changing perspective during the satellite pass. Jet airliners can be seen flying across the the frame (one is merely a shadow), and cars moving along the highway.

Rumor has it that Skybox Imaging may be acquired by Google, so this could be a preview of what we’ll see in a future version of Google Earth.

Leave A Comment, Written by Astro1 on April 17th, 2014 , Skybox Imaging

Orbital (free space) settlement under construction

The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 established rules that allowed settlers on the western frontier to form new states under the Articles of Confederation and, later, the Constitution of the United States. At that time, the “western frontier” meant Ohio. Today, the Northwest Ordinance is considered one of the most important pieces of legislation in US history.

Just over 200 years later, Representative (and future House Speaker) Newt Gingrich introduced a bill in Congress: House Resolution 4286, “The National Space and Aeronautics Policy Act of 1981.” One particularly interesting aspect of the bill was Title IV, inspired by the Northwest Odinance.

Title IV offered a framework for future space settlements to join the Union, first as territories, later as states — just as Ohio and other western settlements joined the Union in the 19th Century.

The bill had 13 co-sponsors, but it went nowhere in Congress and the idea of a “Northwest Ordinance for space” quietly disappeared (although Gingrich mentioned it again during his campaign for President in 2012).

This bill represents an early attempt to answer questions of governance in space, which will inevitably arise with the establishment of the first permanent space settlements later in this century.

Title IV — Government of Space Territories

Constitutional Protection

All persons residing in any community in space organized under the authority and flag of the United States shall be entitled to the protection of the Constitution of the United States.

Self Government

Whenever any such community shall have acquired twenty thousand
inhabitants, on giving due proof thereof to Congress, they shall receive from Congress authority with appointment of time a place to call a convention of representatives to establish a permanent constitution and government for themselves.

Admission to Statehood

Whenever any such community shall have as many inhabitants as
Shall then be in any one of the least numerous of the United States such community shall be admitted as a State into the Congress of the United States on equal footing with the original states.

Title IV could be seen to conflict with the Outer Space Treaty, which prohibits nations from making claims of national sovereignty on celestial bodies. So, modifications to the Treaty would be needed. It would need conflict, however, in the case of orbital or free-space settlements, such as those proposed by Professor Gerard K. O’Neill, which are not tied to the surface of a celestial body.

This is an example of the type of legislation Congress could pass which creates incentives for private enterprise to develop space, without costing the taxpayers any money. Unfortunately, Congress shows little interest in such far-sighted legislation today, and “space policy” centers around uninspiring questions such as which heavy-lift vehicle to build.

Leave A Comment, Written by Astro1 on April 17th, 2014 , Space Policy and Management, Space Settlement

Virgin Galactic and Land Rover have announced a long-term global partnership.

The partnership, announced at the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum on New York’s Hudson River, will feature Land Rovers as part of Virgin Galactic’s ground operations. Land Rover will base vehicles at Virgin’s development center in Mojave and its operational site at Spaceport America in New Mexico.

Land Rover vehicles will be used to transport Virgin’s future space travelers around Spaceport America, including the drive from the terminal building to SpaceShip Two / White Knight Two prior to launch.

The announcement was made in dramatic fashion aboard the former USS Intrepid, a historic aircraft carrier now anchored on the Hudson River. Virgin and Land Rover brought a full-size replica of SpaceShip Two Enterprise to New York, where it joined the British Airways Concorde and its namesake, the Space Shuttle Enterprise. Alongside SpaceShip Two was Land Rover’s Discovery Vision Concept, a concept car showing Land Rover’s vision for future sport-utility vehicles. More than 200 VIP guests attended the event.

The SpaceShip Two mockup will remain on display at Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum for public viewing from 15-22 April.

Virgin Galactic SpaceShip Two and Land Rover Discovery Vision Concept

Leave A Comment, Written by Astro1 on April 14th, 2014 , Virgin Galactic

Sierra Nevada Dream Chaser lifting-body spacecraft landing at proposed Houston Spaceport a

Sierra Nevada Corporation is investigating the possibility of using the proposed Houston Spaceport (at Ellington Airport, just north of Johnson Space Center) as a landing site for its Dream Chaser lifting-body spacecraft.

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Leave A Comment, Written by Astro1 on April 10th, 2014 , Sierra Nevada, Spaceports

XCOR Aerospace Lynx Mark I cockpit and other components

XCOR Aerospace has received the Lynx Mark I cockpit from AdamWorks, Inc of Centennial, Colorado.

XCOR CEO Jeff Greason said, “The successful pressure testing of the Lynx cockpit and its delivery is a major milestone for us. This will enable us to accelerate toward integration, ground testing, and first flight over the rest of this year.”

XCOR selected AdamWorks to build the carbon-fiber cockpit in August 2012. AdamWorks also built the main components of of the internal pressure vessel for Sierra Nevada Corporation’s DreamChaser flight-test article, as well as numerous other aerospace projects.

Leave A Comment, Written by Astro1 on April 9th, 2014 , XCOR Aerospace

Boeing / USAF X-37B

Lieutenant Colonel Peter Garretson asks whether the US Air Force will have a role in planetary defense and asteroid mining, in the March-April 2014 issue of Air and Space Power Journal.

Lieutenant Colonel Garretson and other Air Force strategists have repeatedly raised the topic of asteroid impacts over the years. Nevertheless, the Air Force has not adopted planetary defense as a formal mission:

Despite its potential severity, few Airmen seem to have an appetite for a subject not perceived as “real” war fighting and considered a “low-probability event.” An earlier cadre of Air Force Space Command advocates [submitted] a package to the Joint Requirements Oversight Council to establish a formal mission requirement. In accordance with the wisdom of the time, the council denied it. Let’s repeat that: no requirement to protect planet Earth exists.

To achieve an initial operational capability against asteroid threats, Garretson argues that the USAF should complete a survey of Near Earth Objects using a space-based telescope in a Venus-like orbit (estimated to cost about $500 million) and develop ready-to-launch reconnaissance probes (about $150 million each) and interceptor busses (about $250 million each).

Garretson also argues that the USAF should prepare for a world economy that expands outward into the solar system as companies like Planetary Resources begin to mine the asteroids:

Developing the requisite technology allows the Air Force to play a role similar to its function in aviation, whereby the service’s investment in jet engines and large aircraft catalyzed intercontinental air transport—a mode of transportation that now accounts for 35 percent of global trade by value. By retiring the risk for deep-space transportation and noncooperative capture and deflection, we not only would advance Air Force and US security equities in concert with pursuing a global public good, but also would lay the foundation for a revolution in space transportation and wealth generation.

If we wish to become the visionaries who lead America toward becoming a true spacefaring nation—one that survives such long-term existential threats as asteroids—then we must pursue not simply narrow military power. Just as Rear Adm Alfred Thayer Mahan set us on the right course in naval power and as Brig Gen William “Billy” Mitchell did so in airpower, we need to invest in general spacefaring and its supporting industry. The Air Force is missing the boat (or spacecraft). If the service truly wants to be America’s Space Force, it can’t shy away from this “growth industry” and what will likely become the most essential defense mission of a space force / space guard: planetary defense — the single mission that provides a deep-space requirement. To cede this requirement is to fall into the same precedent as the Army Air Corps, which conceived of airpower as nothing more than a supporting function for land power. A space force cannot just look downward; it must look outward to the source not only of danger but also of wealth and opportunity.

Before he was recruited by XCOR Aerospace, Brian Binnie gave Forbes magazine adventure columnist Jim Clash this interview about winning the Ansari X-Prize.

Leave A Comment, Written by Astro1 on April 4th, 2014 , Scaled Composites, XCOR Aerospace

XCOR Aerospace senior test pilot Brian Binnie

XCOR Aerospace has hired celebrated aviator and commercial astronaut Commander Brian Binnie (USN-ret.) as senior test pilot. In that position, Binnie will work closely with XCOR Chief Test Pilot and former NASA Space Shuttle commander Col. Rick Seefoss (USAF-ret.)

“Brian and I have been friends and colleagues for many years and I have always wanted to work together in a flying environment,” Searfoss said. “Combining our backgrounds as government and commercial astronauts and our broad experience across a number of rocket powered craft, I feel this builds on XCOR’s strong culture that emphasizes safety and professionalism.”

XCOR Founder and CEO Jeff Greason said, “Brian, [XCOR Aerospace chief engineer] Dan DeLong and I worked together at Rotary Rocket. Brian was a consummate professional and leader there, and we’ve stayed in close contact over the years, so I know he will make a great contribution to our efforts at XCOR and getting the Lynx flying soon.”

“I’m very pleased to be part of the XCOR Team and look forward to working with friends and colleagues on many of the exciting development efforts at XCOR including the family of Lynx vehicles,” Binnie said. “I look forward to seeing the Lynx flying soon and making a contribution to the program.”

Brian Binnie is a decorated aviator who piloted SpaceShip One on the Ansari X-Prize award winning flight, which broke the winged aircraft altitude record previously held by the X-15. Binnie also flew the Roton Rocket Atmospheric Test Vehicle, a unique prototype of a single stage to orbit system from Rotary Rocket. Binnie has over 5300 hours of flight time in 85 different aircraft types and 29 years experience as a test pilot. As a naval aviator, he flew the A-7 Corsair II, the A-6 Intruder, the F/A-18 Hornet and the AV-8B Harrier. Binnie is a 1988 Graduate of the United States Naval Test Pilot School. He received his Bachelors in Aerospace Engineering and Masters in Thermodynamics from Brown University and a second Masters degree in Aeronautical Engineering from Princeton University.

Leave A Comment, Written by Astro1 on April 3rd, 2014 , XCOR Aerospace

Jonathan Oxer from Freetronics talks about the Ardusat project and shows his Arduino-based cluster board for running Arduino sketches in space. Recorded at the Melbourne Connected Community Hackerspace.

Leave A Comment, Written by Astro1 on April 3rd, 2014 , Nanosatellites

A tiny, low-cost weather satellite may point the way toward new, distributed architectures for meteorology.

MicroMAS (Micro-sized Microwave Atmospheric Satellite) combines a 1U (10cm x 10cm x 10cm) microwave radiometer from MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory with a 3-axis-stabilized 2U CubeSat bus.

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Leave A Comment, Written by Astro1 on March 31st, 2014 , Nanosatellites

Rumors have been floating around for the past few weeks about a possible Google plan to launch a very large satellite constellation (1600 satellites) to provide global Internet connectivity. Now it looks like Facebook has similar plans.

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3 Comments, Written by Astro1 on March 30th, 2014 , Commercial Space (General)

Twenty-five years ago today, the first commercially licensed rocket was launched from White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico.

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Leave A Comment, Written by Astro1 on March 30th, 2014 , Commercial Space (General), Space History

SpaceX recently test-fired the first stage of Falcon 9R rocket, in preparation for its upcoming first test flight. SpaceX says reusability is “the key to making human life multi-planetary.” The reusable Falcon 9R first stage is their first step toward that goal.

Leave A Comment, Written by Astro1 on March 28th, 2014 , SpaceX

Boeing recently demonstrated a pilot-in-the-loop simulation of its new CST-100 space capsule.

Captain Chris Ferguson (USN-ret.), who commanded the last-ever Space Shuttle flight,flew the simulation, which included on-orbit attitude and translation maneuvers, docking and backing away from a virtual International Space Station, and a manual re-entry to Earth. Ferguson is now director of Crew and Mission Operations for Boeing’s CST-100 program.

Leave A Comment, Written by Astro1 on March 28th, 2014 , Boeing

Skybox Imaging produced this behind-the-scenes video of their first satellite launch.

Leave A Comment, Written by Astro1 on March 28th, 2014 , Skybox Imaging

Radar-tracking  antenna at Cape Canaveral

A fire at a radar tracking station has delayed launches from the Eastern Test Range at Cape Canveral until mid-April, at the earliest, Space Florida reports.

This incident underscores a point which the late space visionary G. Harry Stine hammered home more than 20 years ago: a successful commercial launch vehicle must not be dependent on conventional range systems. Government ranges and launch sites are too fragile and too expensive for frequent, cheap access to space.

That point was duly noted by engineers who built the Delta Clipper Experimental (better known as DC-X) in the 1990′s. Delta Clipper proponents envisioned an operational system that would support thousands of launches per year, not the paltry dozen or so provided by expendable rockets. Achieving that goal would require drastic reductions in the size of the “standing army,” to achieve the desired economies, and ground facilities that operated more like commercial airports than guided-missile ranges.

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2 Comments, Written by Astro1 on March 27th, 2014 , Spaceports

Boeing/DARPA ALASA airborne rocket launch concept F-15 Eagle

Boeing has won the contract competition to build DARPA’s Airborne Launch Assist Space Access (ALASA) launch system.

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Leave A Comment, Written by Astro1 on March 25th, 2014 , Military Space, Nanosatellites

XCOR Lynx spacecraft ground operations

The FAA Office of Commercial Space Transportation is requesting public comments on a draft environmental assessment for the Midland International Air and Space Port, the planned future home of XCOR Aerospace.

To operate a commercial spaceport, the City of Midland must obtain a launch-site operator license from the FAA. The environmental assessment is a license requirement.

The proposed launch-site license would allow the City of Midland to modify the existing airport boundary, install above-ground propellant storage tanks, and construct a concrete pad for engine testing.

According to the proposal, XCOR Lynx launch operations would begin in 2014 and continue through 2018. The frequency of launch operations would be one launch per week initially, increasing to two launches per day, five days a week. Fifty-two annual launch operations are proposed in 2014, increasing to 520 in 2018.

The draft environmental assessment analyzes possible effects on air quality, land use, plants, fish and wildlife; floodplains; hazardous materials, pollution prevention, solid waste; historical, architectural, archaeological, and cultural resources; natural resources and energy supply; noise; socioeconomic impacts, environmental justice, and children’s environmental health and safety risks; water quality; and wetlands.

A copy of the draft environmental assessment is available on the FAA Web site.

The FAA will hold a public meeting to discuss the draft assessment on 8 April 2014 from 5:30 to 8:30 PM at the University of Texas of the Permian Basin. The meeting will take place in the Foyer Room at the Center for Energy and Economic Diversification. The public may also submit written comments by 21 April, 2014.

Leave A Comment, Written by Astro1 on March 24th, 2014 , Spaceports, XCOR Aerospace

The SETI Institute, NASA Ames Research Center, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory are teaming up with the National Park Service to present the third annual MarsFest in Death Valley National Park on 28-30 March, 2014.

The free event will include scientist-led field trips to analog sites Mars Hill, Badwater Basin, Ubehebe Volcanic Field, and the Mesquite Sand Dunes, as well as guest lectures at the park’s Furnace Creek Visitor Center.

More information and advance registration are available here.

Leave A Comment, Written by Astro1 on March 24th, 2014 , Education, Events, Planetary science

image

Earth barely missed a solar superstorm of devastating magnitude on 23 July 2012, according to a new study reported in the journal Nature Communications.

A rapid succession of coronal mass ejections crossed the Earth’s orbit on that day. If the eruptions had occurred nine days earlier, the result would have rivaled the Carrington Event of 1859, the most intense geomagnetic storm ever recorded, according to a team led by Professor Ying Liu of the State Key Laboratory of Space Weather, China and UC Berkeley research physicist Dr. Janet Luhmann.

“Had it hit Earth, it probably would have been like the big one in 1859, but the effect today, with our modern technologies, would have been tremendous,” said Luhmann, who is part of the NASA STEREO (Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory) team and based at UC Berkeley’s Space Sciences Laboratory. The coronal mass ejections were detected by the STEREO A satellite.

During the Carrington event, the telegraph system (which was the dominant form of communication at the time) was knocked out across the United States, and the Northern Lights lit up the night sky as far south as Hawaii. A much smaller event in 1989 knocked out Canada’s Hydro-Quebec power grid and resulted in the loss of electricity to six million people for up to nine hours.

If a Carrington-level event hit North America today, damage is estimated at $0.6-2.6 trillion, according to a 2013 report by Lloyd’s and Atmospheric and Environmental Research, Inc. Damage to electrical transformers would leave 20-40 million Americans without power, some for as little as 16 days, some for as long as 1-2 years. (Another study, commissioned by Oak Ridge National Laboratories, estimates that power outages would affect 70% of the US population.) The lead time for building new transformers is a minimum of five months.

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2 Comments, Written by Astro1 on March 23rd, 2014 , Planetary Defense

NASA space-based solar-power satellite concept

Using space-based solar power to meet our energy needs on Earth is not a new idea. Dr. Peter Glaser of Arthur D. Little, Inc. described a space-based solar-power satellite concept in 1968, one year before Neal Armstrong walked on the Moon. Glaser proposed using microwave beams to transmit power back to Earth. Others have proposed using laser beams, but none of the space-based power concepts have gone anywhere in the last 45 years.

A practical space-based solar power satellite requires some technical advances, mainly in launch costs but also in other areas such as in-space fabrication, control of large space structures, and on-orbit maintainability. The biggest stumbling block, however, is not technical but economic. Despite the enthusiasm of advocates, the economic viability of space-based solar power has always been questionable, to say the least.

The prospects for space-based solar power may be dramatically improved, however, thanks to an emerging interest from the US Navy.

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Leave A Comment, Written by Astro1 on March 18th, 2014 , Military Space