SpaceX took another step toward the International Space Station today with a successful static test of its Falcon 9 engines.



Written by Astro1 on April 30th, 2012 , SpaceX

Due to their possible effects on Earth’s climate, supernovae have been viewed as potential killers and linked to past extinction events.

That may not be the whole story, however. A new study by Professor Henrik Svensmark of the Technical University of Denmark (DTU) suggests that supernovae are, on balance, good for life on Earth.

Examining the geological and astronomical record for the past 500 million years, Prof. Svensmark found that the diversity of the Earth’s ecosystem tended to be greater in eras when nearby supernovae were plentiful. Prof. Svensmark hypothesizes that this is because the colder climate caused by cosmic rays results in a greater variety of habitats between polar and equatorial regions and creates stress that prevents ecosystems from becoming locked into fixed patterns.

The picture is mixed, however. While supernovae have generally had positive effects on Earth’s biosystem, Svensmark says they have also caused prolonged glacial periods and sudden falls in sea level by 25 meters or more.


Written by Astro1 on April 30th, 2012 , Planetary Defense, Space Medicine and Safety

Currently, there are two major markets for commercial suborbital spaceflight. The first is personal space exploration, also known as “space tourism.” The second is professional scientific research. Based on the initial customer response to date, both appear to be viable markets capable of supporting a growing industry. Nevertheless, it would be useful for the industry to have a third leg to stand on.

We believe that citizen science could be that third leg.

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Written by Astro1 on April 28th, 2012 , Citizen Science (General), Citizens in Space

Some tips on finishing the outside of an electronics project.



Written by Astro1 on April 27th, 2012 , Electronics

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is sponsoring an international conference to open dialogue about on-orbit satellite servicing.

Fostering Sustainable Satellite Servicing will be held on Tuesday, June 26 in Arlington, VA.

DARPA pioneered on-orbit satellite servicing with the Orbital Express demonstrator in 2007. DARPA is continuing to pursued on-orbit servicing in the Phoenix program, which seeks to demonstrate technologies for harvesting and reusing components from retired, non-working satellites in geosynchronous orbit.

DARPA Phoenix geosynchronous satellite servicing mission

DARPA believes that widespread adoption of on-orbit servicing would benefit from discussions regarding a range of technical and non-technical issues, including policy, legal and other constraints.

Dave Barnhart, DARPA program manager for Phoenix said that may serve as as a model for future on-orbit servicing activities.

Information about the conference can be found here.


Written by Astro1 on April 27th, 2012 , Events

Hobbyists have been making their own printed circuit boards for a long time, but inkjet printers make it a lot easier.



Written by Astro1 on April 26th, 2012 , Electronics

As the emerging commercial space industry enables more people to travel into space, and we become more dependent on satellite systems for military and commercial purposes, accurate and timely space weather forecasts are a matter of growing importance.

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Written by Astro1 on April 26th, 2012 , Nanosatellites, Planetary Defense, Space Medicine and Safety

Citizens in Space will make a special announcement at Maker Faire. If you’re in the Bay Area on May 19 and 20, you won’t want to miss our presentation.

Maker Faire, created and produced by Make Magazine, is the nation’s largest festival of do-it-yourself science, engineering, art, and crafts. This is citizen science central – the greatest show and tell on Earth!

We’re proud to take the stage at Maker Faire this year to announce the start of an exciting new project. We will be speaking on the Education Stage starting at 1:00 on Saturday, May 19. We will also have a booth, so you can stop by and talk to us any time that weekend.

Maker Faire takes place at the San Mateo Event Center, aka fairgrounds (see map below). For details on Maker Faire, or to buy tickets, click here. Tickets are available here.

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Written by Astro1 on April 25th, 2012 , Citizens in Space

Science fairs are one of the best established venues for citizen science and a valuable tool for science education. Science fairs provide a rare opportunity for high-school students to conceptualize, perform, perform, and report genuine experimental science, rather than simply repeating textbook “experiments” (more accurately, demonstrations) where the answer is known beforehand.

It’s surprising, therefore, that the space community hasn’t shown more interest in science fairs. Or maybe it isn’t. Last year, the leader of a “new space” advocacy group scornfully told us that science fairs were obsolete: No one’s interested anymore, and students never learn anything of value from science fairs anyway.

Really? Not long after that, we picked up a magazine and read about Amy Chyao, a high-school sophomore from our home town of Plano, TX. Amy took first place at the Intel International Science Fair in San Jose. What was her winning project?

She created semiconductor nanoparticles that kill cancer cells when exposed to specific wavelengths of light.

Not bad in an era of No Child Gets Ahead — er, Left Behind.

Science fairs have come a long way in recent years, from building bridges out of toothpicks to discovering cures for cancer. The competition at the highest levels is intense that high-school facilities cannot keep up, and top-level competitors like Amy are joining special programs that enable them to get access to university-class research labs. (In Amy’s case, it was the University of Texas at Dallas Nanoexplorer program, sponsored by the Alan G. MacDiarmid NanoTech Institute.)

Science fairs are also taking new forms, like the online Google Science Fair.

Unfortunately, despite all this science-fair innovation, we aren’t seeing much activity coming from the space community. In the 1950’s, Sputnik drove the US space industry to the forefront of science and technology education. Today, the space industry has been greatly surpassed in innovation by the computer- and information-technology industries. That’s true for consumer products, for services, and also for science and technology education, including science fairs. It’s time to step up to the challenge and match the creative spark we see from other high-tech industries. (Yes, we have a specific proposal.)

To be continued…

Written by Astro1 on April 25th, 2012 , Education

Planetary Resources has shown a roadmap for its future missions. Not surprisingly, the near-term missions are much better defined. Details on the final phase (asteroid mining) are hard to come by. That’s not surprising at this point. As Planetary Resources says, “Recovery and processing of materials… will occur through significant research and development.”

Yet, they’ve apparently determined one detail already. At yesterday’s press conference, it was stated that all of their projects (presumably including the mining phase) would be robotic. That’s not unexpected given the technical team. Chris Lewicki and Cris Voorhees come from the robots uber ulles branch of space science. If they’re successful, capturing and moving an asteroid would be the largest single project ever undertaken entirely by robotics. It remains to be seen whether that’s possible or whether Planetary Resources will ultimately change its plans and accept the need to have humans onsite for supervision and troubleshooting. There’s still plenty of time for mid-course corrections, of course, since any asteroid capture is years away.

Planetary Resources robot captures water-rich asteroid


Written by Astro1 on April 25th, 2012 , Planetary Resources Tags: ,

We previously reported that registration the First Interplanetary CubeSat Workshop, scheduled to take place May 29-30 in Cambridge MA, had filled up. There’s good news for people who still want to attend.

Although the main auditorium is full, conference organizers have set up a second room with a video link. (They are calling it, appropriately enough, the satellite room.) Registration for the satellite room is being discounted to $150 ($37.50 for students) for those who register by May 1. Click here to register.

There are also plans to provide a live video stream of the event for those who cannot attend.

It’s great to see the planetary-science community is once again taking a strong interest in low-cost missions. With NASA’s budget situation getting worse every year, CubeSats might be the salvation of the planetary-science program.

Written by Astro1 on April 24th, 2012 , Nanosatellites

A team of 20 scientists,  led by astrobiologist Dirk Schulze-Makuch of Washington State University, wants to send a fleet of sensor packages to Mars. The mission is called Biological Oxidant and Life Detection or BOLD.

Dr. Schulze-Makuch said, “We really want to address the big questions on Mars and not fiddle around.” With money for space science drying up, Schulze-Makuch says NASA needs to get exciting results that interest not only scientists but the general public as well.

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Written by Astro1 on April 24th, 2012 , Astrobiology Tags:

Planetary Resources Inc., formerly Arkyd Astronautics, revealed a ambitious multistage plan to harvest extraterrestrial resources during a press held at the Museum of Flight in Seattle, WA.

The company, based in the Seattle suburb of Bellevue, has been working quietly for the last three years to develop the plan, which includes space telescopes in Earth orbit, probes to investigate near-Earth asteroids, and ultimately a system to capture an asteroid and return it to Earth orbit.

Asteroid resources include water for use in space and scarce metals for use on Earth. A single 500-meter platinum-rich asteroid contains the equivalent of all the Platinum Group Metals mined in history, according to Planetary Resources.

“Many of the scarce metals and minerals on Earth are in near-infinite quantities in space,” said Peter Diamandis, co-founder and co-chairman the board. “As access to these materials increases, not only will the cost of everything from microelectronics to energy storage be reduced, but new applications for these abundant elements will result in important and novel applications.”


The first phase in the plan would involve launching a series of Arkyd 100 space telescopes into Low Earth Orbit. Each Arkyd telescope would cost a few million dollars, including launch. Arkyd satellites are designed for rideshare missions and do not require dedicated launches.

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Written by Astro1 on April 24th, 2012 , Planetary Resources Tags:

While Planetary Resources was preparing to announce its plans to capture an asteroid, Moon Express announced progress on its $10-million Innovative Lunar Demonstration Data Program (ILDD) contract with NASA and reminded us of its plans to prospect and mine the Moon for metals and water deposited by millions of years of asteroid bombardment.

Moon Express, a contender for the Google Lunar X Prize, has just delivered a Preliminary Design Checkpoint Technical Package to NASA. The package, one in a series of ILDD deliverables, contains details of mission operations, spacecraft development, payload accommodations, and planetary-protection plans. Silicon Valley-based Moon Express was one of three US companies to receive contracts the ILDD program in 2010. Although the ILDD contract demonstrates NASA’s interest in commercial lunar providers, the majority of Moon Express funding comes from private investors and revenues from payload customers.

Moon Express CEO Bob Richards said, “The Moon is an asteroid magnet. In addition to resource abundance, the Moon is right next door and does us the favor of pre-processing and storing the asteroid material so we can access it cost-effectively and safely with known technologies.”

Microsoft billionaire and Moon Express co-founder Naveen Jain described the Moon as “the Earth’s eighth continent, potentially the largest repository of asteroid resources in the solar system.”

“Thanks to Apollo and robotic explorations, as well as lunar meteorites, we have widely sampled the Moon and have a good understanding of what’s accumulated there from eons of asteroid and cometary bombardment,” according to Dr. Stern, Moon Express Chief Scientist and former NASA Associate Administrator for Space Science. “Recent data from lunar probes has discovered water at the lunar poles and bound within the lunar soil that could potentially change the economics of lunar exploration.”



Written by Astro1 on April 24th, 2012 , Commercial Space (General) Tags: ,

Dr. David Grinspoon, who is training to be a suborbital scientist-astronaut, has been named as the first Baruch S. Blumberg NASA/Library of Congress Chair in Astrobiology. The chair is a joint project of the NASA Astrobiology Institute and the John W. Kluge Center at the Library of Congress.

Grinspoon is the curator of astrobiology in the Department of Space Sciences at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science. He is a well-known researcher in planetary science and the author of Lonely Planets: The Natural Philosophy of Alien Life.

Grinspoon is also a founding member of the Suborbital Applications Researchers Group (SARG), a group of 12 scientists who are training to be scientist astronauts on commercial suborbital vehicles. SARG is headed by Dr. Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute, a space scientist who previously served as Associate Administrator for Science at NASA Headquarters. SARG also serves as a coordination and advisory committee of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation.

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Written by Astro1 on April 23rd, 2012 , Astrobiology, Citizen Exploration

Will Watson, executive director of the Space Frontier Foundation, made some over-the-top statements about the Space Shuttle on a blog at the Forbes website.

It’s important to note that this is a “contributor” blog. That means the author does not work for Forbes. She is an amateur blogger. Thus, she has no obligation to fact-check Watson’s statements or present contrary views. If she had, the errors would have been obvious.

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Written by Astro1 on April 22nd, 2012 , Space Medicine and Safety

We recently reported on NASA’s plans to fly low-cost satellites based on consumer smartphones. NASA plans to fly three PhoneSats based on Nexus One smartphone and Android operating system in 2012. In 2013, it plans to launch a constellation of 14-20 Ethersats, based on the Nexus One satellite bus that’s being tested on PhoneSat missions.

This isn’t the first time NASA has flown Android smartphones in space, however. In 2011, the SPHERES robots aboard the International Space Station were upgraded to use Nexus S smartphones. NASA modified the phones by removing the GSM cellular communications chip to avoid interference with ISS electronics, so the phones are permanently in airplane mode, and replaced the standard lithium-ion battery with AA alkaline batteries.

Smartphone processors are 10-100 times faster than the radiation-hardened chips normally found in space systems, so the new brain provides a significant upgrade to the robots’ capabilities.

NASA astronauts have also used the Apple iPhone 4s, running a custom app called Spacelab for iOS developed by Odyssey Space Research. Citizen scientists who want to experiment with the Spacelab for iOS app can download it from the iTunes App Store for $0.99. The app that’s available on iTunes is identical to the version that was flown to ISS on the last flight of the Space Shuttle Atlantis, the same flight that carried the Nexus S smartphones for SPHERES. The Spacelab for iOS app contains a gravity check that allows ground-based users to perform simulated experiments that mimic the tasks and objectives of the flight experiments.



Written by Astro1 on April 22nd, 2012 , Innovation, Nanosatellites

NASA Ames Research Center continues work on its PhoneSat project, which is demonstrating the ability to build very-low-cost satellites using Android smartphones as processors.

Ames has built two versions of the PhoneSat – PhoneSat 1, which costs about $3500, and PhoneSat 2, which costs just under $8,000. Both versions are based on HTC Nexus One smartphones. The first PhoneSats are scheduled to be launched aboard an Orbital Sciences Corporation Antares launch vehicle. The launch, funded under the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services  (COTS) program, is scheduled for the third quarter of 2012. It will carry two PhoneSat 1 satellites and one PhoneSat 2. A second PhoneSat launch is expected to occur in 2013.

PhoneSat isn’t just about cost-cutting, though. Engineers are not sacrificing power for the sake of economy. Quite the contrary. Thanks to the rapid advance of consumer electronics, cell phones have become powerful supercomputers. The Nexus One processor will be 10-100x more powerful than any other processor that’s flown in space.

After the tech demo flights, the PhoneSat bus will serve as the basis for future low-cost satellite missions, beginning with the Ethersat mission that’s scheduled for launch in mid-2013. Sponsored by the NASA Office of the Chief Technologist, Ethersat will be a constellation of fourteen CubeSats, with an option for six additional satellites. EtherSat will demonstrate advanced cross-link and down-link communications, attitude control, and other emerging technologies. Such constellations are expected to have applicability to future earth-science and military missions. Ethersat is funded under the Edison Small Satellite Demonstration Program.

In addition to the Nexus One, the PhoneSat contains an Arduino board. Low-cost satellites generally avoid using radiation-hardened (“rad hard”) electronics, due to the expensive. A single rad-hard processor can cost $400,000. Instead, they have watchdog systems (in this case, the open-source Arduino board) to reboot the main processor if it crashes due to a radiation event.



Written by Astro1 on April 22nd, 2012 , Innovation, Nanosatellites

[Update 3/25/14: DARPA has awarded an ALASA development contract to Boeing.]

Airborne Launch Assist Space Access (ALASA) is a project of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). It is headed by Mitchell Burnside Clapp, a long-time advocate of air launch and winged systems. Burnside Clapp was one of the founders of Pioneer Rocketplane, which later became Rocketplane, LLC.

ALASA seeks to address military concerns with traditional ground-launched systems. The military views these systems as costly due to high manpower requirements at fixed facilities, sluggish due to the need to reconfigure pads between launches, rigid due to limitations on launch azimuth launch times, and brittle because they are vulnerable to weather, earthquake, tsunamis, and enemy attack. DARPA believes that air launched systems will be more affordable, more responsive (the goal is one day from call-up to launch), more flexible (any orbit, any time), and more resilient.

Airborne Launch Assist for Space Access (ALASA) Launch Sequence -- DARPA project

Like NASA’s Nanosatellite Launch Challenge, ALASA hopes to develop a reliable, cost-effective launcher for small satellites. DARPA’s definition of “small” is a bit different, though. The NASA challenge is targeting CubeSat-sized payloads up to one kilogram. ALASA wants to develop a system that can put up to 100 pounds (45 kilograms) into Low Earth Orbit. That would apparently rule out systems like the GO Launcher, for example.

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Written by Astro1 on April 21st, 2012 , Innovation, Nanosatellites Tags:

Generation Orbit is a new subsidiary of SpaceWorks Engineering. Headed by SpaceWorks veteran A.C. Charania, Generation Orbit plans to develop an air-launch system for nanosatellites.

Generation Orbit estimates there are 250 nanosatellite projects at the present time. It expects that there will be a market for 100 nano satellite launches per year by the end of this decade. Currently, most small satellites are launched as secondary payloads on rideshare missions, which means their operators have little or no control over launch schedule and orbital destination. Generation Orbit believes that air launch will provide more flexibility.

The company’s initial demonstrator, GO Launcher 1, would use existing solid-fueled upper stages. Go Launcher 1 could mature into an operational capability capable of delivering 1-10 kilograms to a 250-kilometer circular orbit.

GO Launcher 2 would be a larger system capable of placing 20-30 kilograms into a 450 km circular orbit. It might incorporate new technology.

Generation Orbit’s conceptual design appears quite open at the present time. The company’s website shows potential concepts based on the McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II and F-15D Eagle, the Sukhoi Su-27 Flanker, and a Gulfstream II or III business jet.

Gulfstream, F-4 Phantom II, F-15 Eagle, and Su-27 Flanker

The F-15 option parallels a future concept being studied at at Premier Space Systems.

The Su-27 option might seem odd choice, given that Generation Orbit intends to operate in the US. The company hopes to fly from a variety of launch sites including the NASA Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, NASA Dryden Flight Research Center in California, Kennedy Space Center, and Cecil Field Spaceport in Jacksonville, Florida. 

There is at least one operation Su-27 in the United States at the present time, however. Reliable sources tell us that the registered owner is actually a dummy company owned by Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen. There is no reason to believe he’s involved with Generation Orbit, however.

By coincidence, Paul Allen is also has an interest in air-launch projects, having financed the development of SpaceShip One and being the founder of Stratolaunch.

A.C. Charania has participated in workshops for NASA’s Nanosatellite Launch Challenge, so it seems a safe bet that Generation Orbit intends to compete for that prize.

Written by Astro1 on April 21st, 2012 , Innovation, Nanosatellites Tags:

Nanoracks has a new product: an external platform that allows customers to place small payloads on the exterior of the International Space Station.



Written by Astro1 on April 21st, 2012 , Microgravity, Space Physics

Montana State University has announced plans to build a technology-test satellite called PrintSat. A one-unit CubeSat (10 cm on a side), PrintSat will be built out of nano-carbon-impregnated plastic using a 3D printer.

PrintSat was selected by NASA’s CubeSat Launch Initiative in 2012 and may be in space as soon as 2013.

MSU professor David Klumpar said 3D printing “will further lower the costs and speed the development of very small satellites, enabling future scientific missions comprised of dozens of satellites flying in formation.”

Printing satellite parts on Earth for use in space is one thing, but Made in Space is a startup company that wants to use 3D printers to manufacture parts in space. Made in Space tested two printers on Zero Gee flights in the summer of 2011 under the sponsorship of NASA’s Flight Opportunities Program. In one experiment, they manufactured an open-end wrench to show how 3D printing could produce tools for use aboard a future space station.

Made in Space hopes  test their 3D printing technology aboard a suborbital flight in the near future.

Contrary to popular belief, 3D printing is not limited to plastics. 3D printers have been demonstrated with a wide variety of materials including metals. Paul Breed of Unreasonable Rocket has demonstrated the use of such a printer to build rocket engines.

Written by Astro1 on April 21st, 2012 , Innovation, Nanosatellites, Rocketry

At the recent CubeSat Developer’s Workshop at Cal Poly, we heard a rumor that somebody had launched a CubeSat made from Legos.

Unfortunately, the Lego-1 CubeSat appears to be a hoax – an April Fool’s joke.

Although no one has yet built a CubeSat structure out of Legos yet, a team of International Space University students at NASA Ames Research Center did build a prototype satellite that uses Lego NXT electronics. It made the cover of Make magazine in October 2010.

We hope someone does build a CubeSat out of Legos soon, though, because. Just because.

Written by Astro1 on April 20th, 2012 , Nanosatellites

The First Interplanetary CubeSat Workshop, scheduled to take place May 29-30 in Cambridge, MA has filled up for both attendees and visitors. A waiting list has been created.

The workshop has received more than 40 “high quality” abstracts.

This unexpectedly strong interest in interplanetary CubeSat missions is a good sign. During the 1990’s, NASA looked to innovative low-cost Discovery and New Horizon missions as a solution to cost escalation and cost overruns. The motto in those days was “No more Cassinis!” Unfortunately, that changed after a few highly publicized (and highly politicized) mission failures. The result is cost-busting missions like the James Webb Space Telescope and Mars Science Laboratory. Even Discovery-class missions have escalated in cost and complexity. The merits of conducting frequent, low-cost missions are undeniable, however. Thanks to rapid advances in microelectronics, the idea of low-cost planetary missions is reemerging in the form of  CubeSats.

Best of all, since CubeSat is an open standard, there is a better chance the interplanetary CubeSat idea will survive even if NASA or it’s political masters lose interest.

Written by Astro1 on April 19th, 2012 , Nanosatellites, Planetary science