Robert Staehle of JPL gave a presentation on Interplanetary CubeSats at NASA’s Institute of Advanced Concepts On March 28. The interplanetary CubeSat idea is rapidly catching on, as demonstrated by the Interplanetary CubeSat Workshop scheduled to take place at MIT on May 29-30 with NASA Chief Technologist Mason Peck as keynote speaker.


(You can view the presentation at if the YouTube video is unavailable.)

The interplanetary CubeSat concept is evolving rapidly. Staehle assumes that solar sails are arequired technology for propulsion. Another option has already emerged, however. The Microsystems for Space Technologies Laboratory at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne’ has created a small ion engine for CubeSat-sized payloads. Theion drive weighs only 200 g including enough propellant to send a CubeSat from Earth orbit to the Moon or Mars


Planetary missions may soon be within reach of citizen scientists. Just getting a CubeSat into Earth orbit remains a problem, though. NASA’s Nano-Satellite Launch Challenge prize may help. A number of companies are already working on innovative solutions to the problem, including Premiere Space Systems (Nanolaunch) and XCOR Aerospace.

Written by Astro1 on March 31st, 2012 , Innovation, Lunar Science, Nanosatellites, Planetary science

Ceres Earth Moon size comparison

The endless debate over NASA’s next destination resembles a food fight between the Moonmen and the Mars advocates. The near Earth asteroids get no respect from either side. That lack of respect seems kind of strange, considering some near-Earth asteroids have a potential ability to destroy all life on Earth. One would expect that sort of death-dealing ability to merit at least a little respect. Nevertheless, near-Earth asteroids are ridiculed as mere “rubble piles” and any proposed visit is a “mission to nowhere.”

Ultimately, this debate is silly. The only real answer to the designation question is “All of the Above.” If we develop low-cost access to space, supporting infrastructure such as propellant depots, and deep-space exploration exploration ships like JSC’s proposed Nautilus-X, we can go anywhere in the solar system. Without such capabilities, we’re going nowhere.

Having said that, let’s play the destination game just this once. We’d like to put in a pitch for a dark horse candidate.
Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Astro1 on March 30th, 2012 , Astrobiology, Space Exploration (General) Tags:

Citizens in Space will participate at this year’s Maker Faire Bay Area, which takes place May 19 and 20 at the San Mateo Event Center in San Mateo, CA. New details on Citizens in Space programs will be announced at the event.

Maker Faire, produced by Make magazine, is a two-day festival of do-it-yourself science, engineering, art, and crafts. MakerFaire Bay Area is the oldest and largest Maker Faire, attracting about 150,000 people.

To put that into perspective, NASA has about 18,000 employees.

We invite all citizen scientists and Makers in the Bay Area to visit us at Maker Faire. More details on our participation will be posted as the event approaches.

See us at Maker Faire!

Written by Astro1 on March 30th, 2012 , Citizen Science (General), Events

San Francisco, CA (Mar. 28, 2012) — Citizen scientists and hardware hackers are being challenged to develop payloads for commercial reusable suborbital spacecraft during the International Space Apps Challenge, a NASA-sponsored event that takes place worldwide and aboard the International Space Station on April 21-22.

The International Space Apps Challenge is a two-day “codeathon” which invites developers, hobbyists, and hackers around the world to work on a variety of hardware and software challenges. Citizens in Space, a project of the United States Rocket Academy, is challenging participants to develop suborbital science payloads as part of the event.

Successful payloads may fly into space aboard one of the commercial reusable spacecraft that are now under development by companies such as XCOR Aerospace. XCOR Aerospace is building the Lynx, a two-seat rocketship that is expected to make its first flight before the end of this year.

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Astro1 on March 29th, 2012 , Citizen Science (General), Citizens in Space, Events

Astronomy has entered a new era of mega-telescopes, where even ground-based instruments can cost upwards of a billion dollars. The James Webb Space Telescope is expected to cost more than $8 billion. Obviously, such instruments are well out of the range of citizen scientists. The future for amateur astronomy is not dim, however. Smaller, lower-cost telescopes remain relevant and useful for astronomy.

For this reason, both professional and amateur astronomers should welcome the development of reusable suborbital spacecraft which can carry small telescopes on short-duration missions. These low-cost missions will enable many astronomical experiments that benefit from access to space but do not need (and often cannot afford) a ride to orbit.

Flying telescopes on suborbital spacecraft is not a new idea. In the 1960’s, the X-15 rocketplane flew a number of telescopes for NASA. The NASA Office of Space Sciences sponsored the Ultraviolet Stellar Photography experiment, for example, which photographed Alpha Aurigue, Eta Aurigue, and Rho Aurigue from altitudes above 246,000 feet.

Professional astronomers are already starting to develop astronomical instruments for the new commercial suborbital vehicles. Among the first of these instruments is the Atsa Suborbital Observatory, designed by Dr. Faith Vilas of the Planetary Science Institute and Dr. Luke Sollitt of The Citadel, the Military College of South Carolina. Dr. Vilas recently left her position as director of the MMT (Multiple Mirror Telescope) Observatory to develop Atsa.

The Atsa Observatory is based on commercial off-the-shelf components. The optical component is a 14-inch Celestron Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope, with some modifications to increase its ruggedness. The main sensor will be a commercially available Silver 220 or  Thermovision SC4000 infrared camera. Visiting scientists will have the option of bringing their own sensors, however.

Atsa Observatory suborbital space telescope

Atsa (the Navaho word for “eagle”) will fly on the XCOR Lynx Mark III. It will be controlled during flight by a payload operator in the Lynx’s right seat. Having a human in the loop means that researchers won’t have to spend a lot of money automating their experiments and debugging control software. The Lynx spacecraft will do the coarse pointing of the telescope using its maneuvering thrusters, but a gimbal-drive-motor assembly will do the fine pointing. Atsa will ride in the Lynx’s dorsal experiment pod and be exposed to space by a door during flight. Dr. Vilas says, “The best window is no window.”

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Astro1 on March 28th, 2012 , Astronomy, Innovation, XCOR Aerospace

NASA has released a a couple of e-books on the X-15 suborbital rocketplane.

X-15: Extending the Frontiers of Flight by Dennis R. Jenkins is a very complete (644-page) official history of the program. It was published in December, 2010. The paperback sells for $35 on Amazon but you can download it for free here.

X-15 Research Results (NASA SP-60) by Wendell H. Stillwell is an older technical report. It’s from 1965, so an original hardcopy is probably hard to find. You can download that one here.

X-15 Extending the Frontiers of Flight book cover

Written by Astro1 on March 28th, 2012 , Books and Resources, Space Exploration (General), Space History

As the Apollo program wound down in the late 60’s, NASA began to think about how it could reuse some of the technology and systems that had been developed for Apollo. This recycling effort was called the Apollo Applications Program. Apollo Applications led to Skylab, America’s first space station, but it was intended for the program to be more than just a one-shot. Skylab was to be followed by Skylab II , which would be more reusable and incorporate the first use of artificial gravity. NASA hoped the Skylabs would lead to  a 12-man space station and then a 50-man space base. There were also concepts for a lunar Skylab in polar orbit about the Moon. One by one, all of these concepts were dropped as NASA was forced to divert funding to its priority program – the development of the Space Shuttle.

One of the more interesting concepts from this period did not come from NASA but from a model company called MPC. It may seem  unusual for a realistic space-vehicle concept to come from a toy company, but it’s not too surprising given that the Pilgrim Observer was designed by the late G. Harry Stine. An aerospace engineer who learned his trade under Dr. Wernher von Braun launching V-2 rockets at White Sands, Harry Stine was one of the early advocates of commercial space and author of several books on space exploration and space development, including The Third Industrial Revolution. Although the Pilgrim Observer was not based directly on NASA concepts, Stine did incorporate much of the technology which he knew to be current at the time. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Astro1 on March 26th, 2012 , Space Exploration (General), Space History

“Unmanned” space supporters would have us believe that humans are obsolete and space should be the exclusive domain of robots, but an incident that occurred a few years ago shows why humans (especially pilots) are not yet obsolete. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Astro1 on March 26th, 2012 , Space Medicine and Safety Tags:

Filmaker and citizen explorer James Cameron has successfully piloted the Deepsea Challenger (also known as the “vertical torpedo”) to the deepest spot on Earth – the Challenger Deep in the Pacific Ocean’s Mariana Trench 300 miles southwest of Guam. (See the National Geographic report here.)

The Challenger Deep, 6.8 miles below the surface of the Pacific Ocean, has only been explored once before. That was in 1960 by the bathyscaphe Trieste carrying Swiss explorer Jacques Picard and US Navy Lieutenant Don Walsh. The Trieste could only spend 20 minutes on the ocean bottom, however. Cameron spent about six hours on the bottom, filming the entire journey with 3D high-definition cameras. His submarine was also equipped with a sediment sampler, a robotic claw, and a “slurp gun” for picking up biological samples. Among the scientists waiting to see the samples are NASA astrobiologists. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Astro1 on March 26th, 2012 , Astrobiology, Citizen Exploration, Oceanography

As SpaceX prepares for the first commercial docking with the International Space Station, the race to develop crew and cargo resupply vehicles continues to heat up. Emerging space companies like SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Sierra Nevada are competing against one another and against established companies like Orbital Science and Boeing. Now, competition has reached the point where two divisions of the aerospace giant are competing against one another.

Boeing is hard at work developing the CST-100 capsule under the NASA Crew and Cargo Development (CCDEV) program.

Boeing CST-100 commercial space capsule

Late last year, it was revealed that another Boeing crew and cargo vehicle may be in the works. At the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics’s Space 2011 conference in November, Boeing’s Arthur Grantz revealed that the company is studying a new derivative of the Boeing/USAF X-37B. The new X-37C would be 65-80% larger than the current B version. Launched by an Atlas V rocket, X-37C could carry pressurized or unpressurized cargo or 5-6 astronauts. Grantz is chief engineer in charge of X-37 at the Boeing Space and Intelligence Systems Experimental Systems Group .

One advantage of the winged X-37C would be its gentle 1.5-gee reentry profile. The soft return would benefit astronauts who are deconditioned by long-duration missions in weightlessness as well as those who must be evacuated for medical reasons. Astronauts would normally ride in aircraft-like seats but the design includes provisions for transporting one astronaut on a stretcher. Fragile hardware, such as the results of biological or materials-processing experiments, would  also benefit.

The X-37C seems like a dark horse at the moment, since CST-100 is already in development and receiving funding under CCDEV, but rumors say that NASA is considering extending the life of the International Space Station again, to 2028. If that happens, the chances for new entries in the CCDEV race are likely to improve. X-37 could also carry citizen space explorers to a Bigelow space station and other Low Earth Orbit destinations in the future.

This type of internal competition is a sign of a healthy industry. In the commercial world, a good company is always trying to make its own products obsolete (before an external competitor does it for them).

Boeing/USAF X-37B

X-37 began as a NASA program in the late 1990’s. NASA funded the development of two vehicles. One vehicle, called X-40, was designed for approach-and-landing tests with a CH-47 helicopter used as the drop aircraft. The slightly larger X-37A was designed to go into space but never made it. The program was canceled and X-37A was mothballed for several years until the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) took it over. X-37A was then used for additional approach-and-landing tests, using Scaled Composite’s White Knight  (originally built to carry SpaceShip One) as the drop aircraft.

Finally, in 2006, the US Air Force decided to proceed with orbital tests of the X-37. It was decided that the original X-37 was not adequate for this purpose, so a new version, called X-37B was constructed. Two X-37B vehicles were built. The first X-37B conducted a 225-day mission in space from April 22 to December 3, 2010. The second X-37B was launched on March 5, 2011. It is expected to remain in orbit for 270 days or longer. Although X-37B is designed to be reusable, neither of the two vehicles has yet been reflows. The Air Force officially designates the X-37B as an Orbital Test Vehicle, or OTV. Various conspiracy theories claim X-37B is everything from a spy satellite to a space-weapons platform, but there’s no evidence to indicate that it is anything more than an experimental test platform as the Air Force states. The low flight rate would sam to preclude an operational role.

Written by Astro1 on March 25th, 2012 , Boeing

NASA’s space-science program is in crisis. This is partly due to limitations on the overall NASA budget and competition from other programs, such as the Senate-mandated Space Launch System, but it’s mainly due to budget overruns within the space-science program, particularly the flagship James Webb Space Telescope.

The JWST was supposed to cost $1.6 billion and launch in 2011. Now, it is estimated that the telescope will cost $8.7 billion and won’t launch until 2018. The House Appropriations Committee tried to cancel the JWST in 2011, because of the cost overruns. The Senate saved the JWST, but the cost of its salvation is likely to be major cuts in NASA’s unmanned Mars programs and other science missions.

JWST may have dodged the bullet in 2011, but there is no guarantee it will continue to do so in the future, especially if costs continue to escalate. So, now seems like a good time to ask the question: If the James Webb Space Telescope is cancelled, what could NASA do in its place? Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Astro1 on March 24th, 2012 , Astronomy

A new study suggests that giant stars may not be necessary for supernovae.

This is a bit discomforting. Nearby supernovae are suspects in a number of past extinction events. Scientists think that a gamma-ray burst from a supernova may have been responsible for the Ordovician extinction which killed off 60% of all marine species 450 million years ago. A supernova has also been suspected in the extinction of the mammoth just 13,000 years ago.

The gamma-ray burst from a supernova is not likely to kill off organisms from direct biological effects unless the supernova is very close by (unrealistically close). A gamma burst could damage the ozone layer, however, causing species extinctions due to increases in ultraviolet radiation. It could also trigger changes in the Earth’s climate that lead to a new ice age.

Until now, scientists thought they knew which stars were candidates for supernovae. If that is changing, we may need to take another look at the stars in our own neighborhood. The risks may be greater than we think.

Still, we’re probably at far greater risk, individually and collectively, from the star which is closest to us and sustains our lives: the sun. A solar superstorm could damage or destroy power grids, pipelines, and communication satellites, plunging us back into the dark ages. Even a much smaller storm could endanger the lives of space travelers, including spaceflight participants on the suborbital vehicles many of us hope to be flying in a few years. Fortunately, there steps that can be taken to understand and prepare for bad space weather. Citizen scientists can help improve space-weather forecasting by participating in the Royal Greenwich Observatory’s Solar Storm Watch.

Written by Astro1 on March 21st, 2012 , Planetary Defense

Using high-performance aircraft or suborbital spacecraft as launch platforms for upper stages is an idea that’s gaining considerable attention these days. XCOR Aerospace, for example, believes that nanosatellite launches will be a big part of its Lynx business model.

The idea has considerable design history behind it. In the early 1960’s, NASA considered using the X-15 as a launch platform to place satellites up to 150 pounds in orbit:

NASA X-15 Blue Scout launch platform

The official NASA history X-15 Extending the Frontiers of Flight by Dennis R. Jenkins discusses the Blue Scout concept in some detail: Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Astro1 on March 21st, 2012 , Space History Tags:

Citizen scientists who are interested in nanosatellites should check out two upcoming workshops. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Astro1 on March 21st, 2012 , Events, Nanosatellites

The CBS News program 60 Minutes did a report on Elon Musk this week. The video is now available on YouTube.


The Congressional testimony by Neil Armstrong and Gene Cernan is a bit disturbing. Armstrong and Cernan are national heroes. They deserve our respect, but they do not deserve a veto right over our future. Imagine if Charles Lindbergh had returned from Europe, disappeared from aviation for 40 years, then reemerged in the 1960’s to testify against commercial air travel. Safety is important, but commercialization is not the enemy of safety. Safety will improve in space the way it did in aviation – with experience. That’s the only way safety has ever improved, and commercialization is necessary to bring about the increased flight rates that will get us that experience.

As a side note, this is why, as interesting as the SpaceX developments might be, suborbital spaceflight is even more important. Suborbital vehicles have the potential for achieving far higher flight rates, in the near term, than orbital system. As Burt Rutan likes to say, all progress begins at the low end, and it is low-cost low-end suborbital spacecraft which will gain the base  of experience we need for future breakthroughs in orbital and deep-space transportation.

Written by Astro1 on March 21st, 2012 , Citizen Exploration, Commercial Space (General), SpaceX

The Moon Mappers citizen-science project, which has been in beta test since January, is now live.

MoonMappers challenges citizens to pit their mapping skills against computer algorithms by identifying craters in Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter images. The results will be used to train the computers to make better decisions, improving the crater-matching algorithms.


Written by Astro1 on March 20th, 2012 , Lunar Science Tags:

Given the recent interest in using jet fighters as launch platforms, it’s interesting to look at some past proposals.

The late Len Cormier was an old-school aerospace engineer who became involved with space just prior to Sputnik. He was also a good friend who never tired of regaling us with tales of dating Marilyn Monroe. Len worked for North American Aviation, which later became part of Rockwell International, and was involved in some of the design studies that led to the Rockwell Space Shuttle. He became convinced that the Space Shuttle would never live up to the economic benefits which Rockwell and NASA claimed for it – it was too large, too expensive, and too complex, in his view – and left to form his own company (PanAero, Inc.) to pursue his own designs. Len continued working up until his death in 2008, always championing vehicles which were small, simple, and designed to minimize development costs.

Len’s primary interest was vehicles that could carry humans to orbit (such as the Space Van) but he also worked on suborbital rockets and satellite launchers. One of his later designs was a concept to launch a 100-kilogram (220-lb) satellite from an F-14A Tomcat. The US Navy fighter was an appropriate choice for Len, who flew fighters off a Navy carrier during World War II, but it was made for sound engineering reasons. Len believed the design of the F-14 was better suited for carrying underslung payloads than other aircraft such as the F-15 Eagle. In addition, F-14 airframes were readily available (at least to the US government). The Navy was in the process of retiring F-14s from active service and good-quality airframes were filling government boneyards. Unfortunately, Len ran into some difficulty persuading the government to sell recently retired military aircraft to a civilian company.

Premier Space Systems is currently considering a similar concept for their future orbital system. PSS would use an F-15A or B model rather than the F-14.

PanAero F-14 space launch platform

Written by Astro1 on March 20th, 2012 , Commercial Space (General), Space History Tags:

Jet fighters originally developed in the 1950’s are now being pressed into service as suborbital (and perhaps orbital) launch platforms. Two groups on opposite ends of the country are working on similar projects.

In the Southeast, 4Frontiers Corporation is developing the Star Lab suborbital rocket with sponsorship from the Florida Space Grant Consortium. Star Lab is an unguided rocket that would be launched from an F-104 flying from Kenneday Space Center and operated by Starfighters, Inc. Star Lab would carry 4 to 13 payloads with a total mass of 32 kilograms (70 lb.) to an altitude of 80-120 kilometers (47-70 miles). 4Frontiers Corporation is currently offering payload space at $8,000 (2 kg.), $13,333 (4 kg.), and $16,667 (8 kg.). The group plans to conduct powered launch tests during the first half of 2012 with regular commercial launches beginning in mid-2012.

F-104 Starfighter

In the Pacific Northwest, Premier Space Systems is working with Space Propulsion Group to develop a suborbital rocket launched by an ex-Soviet MiG-21. The Nanolaunch rocket is designed to carry a 45-kilogram (100 lb.) payload to 100 kilometers (62 mi.) or a 23-kilogram (50 lb.) payload to 132 kilometers (82 miles). Future versions of the rocket would be able to place payloads into orbit. Premier Space Systems is based in Oregon and operates out of Siskiyou County Airport in California. PSS began captive-carry test flights in September 2011 which will continue through June 2012. It has not yet announced a date for live-fire testing.

The F-104 and MiG-21 are quite similar aircraft in terms of age and performance. Both were designed as high-performance Mach 2 interceptors. The F-104, designed by legendary Lockheed designer Kelly Johnson, entered service with the USAF in 1958. The MiG-21 entered service with the Soviet Air Force the following year. The F-104 was soon retired from USAF service, however (although some US allies, such as Italy, continued operating it until the 21st Century). The MiG-21 remained in service with the Soviet Union and its allies for decades and became the most-produced jet fighter in history. More than 11,000 were built (over 13,000 if you include the J-7, a reverse-engineered Chinese copy).

Using jet fighters as launch platforms is not a new idea. Project NOTSNIK used a Douglas F4D Skyray, another 1950’s vintage fighter.

Both aircraft were both designed as highly optimized, lightweight high-performance fighters. This makes them well-suited for use as rocket-launch platforms, so it’s no coincidence that the two ventures have similarities. It’s no coincidence that both ventures have coastal locations, either. Being located near the ocean greatly simplifies the impact-area problem for such rocket launches.


Written by Astro1 on March 20th, 2012 , Commercial Space (General) Tags:

XCOR Aerospace chief operating officer Andrew Nelson spoke at the SETI Institute on February 29. For those who didn’t have a chance to attend, the SETI Institute has posted the complete talk (just over an hour) on YouTube.


Written by Astro1 on March 18th, 2012 , Citizen Exploration, Commercial Space (General), XCOR Aerospace

The International Space Station was originally scheduled to be deorbited by 2016. Given the long development program, this led to understandable criticisms that NASA and the international partners were building the station just so they could throw it away. In 2010, President Obama reversed course on that plan, announcing that the US would continue ISS operations through at least 2020.

Now, there are rumors the lifetime of the station may be extended even further, until 2028. If that happens, ISS will remain in orbit for a total of 30 years – twice as long as the Russian Mir space station. Ironically, the previous NASA Administrator, Dan Goldin, insisted that Russia deorbit the Mir space station to free up resources for the ISS program. Goldin declared Mir to be outdated and unsafe because of its age. Pressure by Goldin ended attempts by US and international parties to commercialize the Mir space station.

Mir Space Station seen from Endeavour during STS-89

One reason for keeping ISS in orbit for as long as possible: although it is seldom commented on, NASA does not currently have a firm plan for how to dispose of the space station when it reaches end of life. The original plan called for the station to be disassembled and major pieces returned to Earth via the Space Shuttle. That plan is currently nonoperative since the Shuttle is no longer flying.

By the time 2028 arrives, ISS may be something of an anachronism, if Bigelow Aerospace realizes its ambition to develop a commercial space station.

Written by Astro1 on March 17th, 2012 , Space Exploration (General)

On March 16, NASA conducted another test of its Morpheus lunar lander. The Morpheus lander, built by Armadillo Aerospace, is sized to land a 1,100-pound payload on the Moon. Morpheus is a scaled up version of the Pixel quad rocket which Armadillo built to compete for the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge. Project Morpheus is based at NASA’s Johnson Space Center.


Tests like these show how far Armadillo Aerospace has come. Founded by Doom video-game creator John Carmac, Armadillo Aerospace was originally staffed entirely by volunteers. Although the company is now run by paid employees, its development shows how citizen-science efforts can contribute to the development of rocketry and space technology. (Armadillo Aerospace was still run by volunteers when it won the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge.)

The video below shows an overview of previous Morpheus tests.


Written by Astro1 on March 17th, 2012 , Armadillo Aerospace, Rocketry, Space Exploration (General) Tags:

Project NOTSNIK is one of the obscure footnotes of space history.

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Astro1 on March 17th, 2012 , Nanosatellites, Space History Tags:

NASA has officially announced a scheduled date for the next SpaceX Dragon test mission, according to The mission, which will rendezvous and berth with the International Space Station if all goes well, is scheduled to launch on April 30. UPDATE: Berthing is scheduled to occur on May 3, according to SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell.  SECOND UPDATE: The target launch time is 12:22 Eastern Daylight Time. 

The unmanned test flight is intended to demonstrate that SpaceX is ready to begin delivering cargo to ISS. Once that occurs, the next step is delivering NASA personnel. When that happens, SpaceX plans to start carrying citizen space explorers as well.

The Stratos balloon missions pose many of the same challenges as a space mission. Red Bull has developed a sophisticated camera system to document the jumps:


Written by Astro1 on March 15th, 2012 , Citizen Exploration