Space Florida, which manages the $3-million Nanosatellite Launch Challenge for NASA, has published draft rules for the competition.

The goal of the Nanosatellite Launch Challenge is to encourage the development of new systems for low-cost, frequent launches of small payloads.

The draft rules call for a prize of $1.5 million going to the first team that completes two successful launches, with a payload of one kilogram each, within a period of seven days. Each payload must complete at least one orbit of the Earth with a maximum perigee of 2000 kilometers. Both launches must use the same vehicle type and design.

Second and third prizes of $1 million and $500,000 go to the next two teams to achieve the goal. The payload does not need to be functional. 

The first prize can be won by a ground-launched or air-launched vehicle. If the first prize is won by a ground-launched vehicle, the second prize can only be won by an air-launched vehicle, and vice versa.

The Nanosatellite Launch Challenge is part of NASA’s Centennial Challenges program. Unlike most Centennial Challenges, which require systems to be developed solely with private investment, the Nanosatellite Launch Challenge allows vehicles based on designs developed by or for the government. Vehicles must be manufactured without substantial government investment (more than initial phase one SBIR funding or $150,000 whichever is greater).

This seems like a curious rule, since the purpose of Centennial Challenges is normally to encourage the development of a system or capability without traditional government development contracts. It would be theoretically possible for a team to win the Nanosatellite Launch Challenge with a rocket developed entirely at government expense, paying only for the cost of two launches. (In practice, there has been a notable lack of government interest in nanosatellite launcher development.)

Written by Astro1 on April 19th, 2012 , Innovation, Nanosatellites, Rocketry

A new citizen-science project from NASA is enlisting amateur astronomers to help discover near-Earth asteroids and study their characteristics.

The project, called Target Asteroids, will support NASA’s Origins Spectral Interpretation Resource Identification Security – Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) mission. OSIRIS-REx, which will study material from asteroid 1999 RQ36, is scheduled for launch in 2016.

Amateur astronomers participating in the project will help characterize the near-Earth asteroid population by recording their position, motion, rotation, and changes in brightness. Professional astronomers will use the information to refine theoretical models, improving their understanding of asteroids similar to the one OSIRIS-REx will encounter in 2019.

OSIRIS-REx will map the asteroid’s global properties, measure non-gravitational forces, and make observations that can be compared with data from telescopes on Earth. In 2023, OSIRIS-REx will return to Earth with 60 grams of surface material from the asteroid.

Previous observations indicate 1999 RQ36 is made of primitive materials. OSIRIS-REx data will provide new insights into the nature of the early solar system and the building blocks that led to life on Earth.

Amateur astronomers have provided tracking observations in support of NASA’s Near Earth Object Observation Program for more than 10 years. This traching data is important for selecting targets for asteroid missions such as OSIRIS-REx.

“Although few amateur astronomers have the capability to observe 1999 RQ36 itself, they do have the capability to observe other targets,” said Jason Dworkin, OSIRIS-REx project scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

Partner organizations in the Target Asteroid program include the International Astronomical Search Collaboration, the Astronomical League, the Association of Lunar and Planetary Observers, Oceanside Photo and Telescope, the NASA Night Sky Network, the University of Arizona Mt. Lemmon SkyCenter, and the Catalina Sky Survey.

For more information on Target Asteroids, or to register for the program, click here.

Written by Astro1 on April 18th, 2012 , Astronomy, Planetary science Tags:

Lieutenant Colonel Guy Mathewson from the National Reconnaissance Office (Office of Space Launch) gave the keynote at the Spring CubeSat Workshop, which began today at California Polytechnic State University (Cal Poly) in San Luis Obispo.

It’s still a bit jarring to see a representative of an agency whose very existence was secret for many years speaking at an open conference. Especially a conference that encourages other people to build satellites.

Lt. Col. Mathewson said that NRO is investigating meeting some of its future needs with CubeSats. Lt. Col. Mathewson believes CubeSats can simultaneously revolutionize how NRO gets intelligence and help to develop the future aerospace workforce.

The National Reconnaissance Office is not only talking about satellites openly, it is helping other organizations get their satellites into orbit. NRO is doing its first rideshare mission in August from Vandenburg Air Force Base, carrying 11 CubeSats. NRO plans to do one rideshare mission per year. “Not too many people thought NRO would be doing rideshare missions,” Lt. Col. Mathewson said.

Live streaming of CubeSat Workshop sessions is available here.

Written by Astro1 on April 18th, 2012 , Nanosatellites

There’s unexpected news for people who believe astrobiology is an ivory-tower science with no practical applications. A growing body of research suggests that extremophile organisms living in the upper atmosphere, at the very edge of space, can affect our lives in unexpected ways, even controlling the Earth’s weather.

At a conference of the American Society for Microbiology in May 2011, a team of scientsts led by Alexander Michaud from Montana State University presented results showing that bacteria play a key role in the formation of hailstones, which cause billions of dollars in damage to drops and property every year.

At the same conference, Pierre Amato of Clermont University, France suggested that airborne microbes may play a role in greenhouse gas formation.

Microorganisms such as bacteria, fungi, and viruses may play a role in the formation of rain as well as hail. Microorganisms may catalyze precipitation by acting as nucleation sites for the formation of water droplets and ice crystals. Inorganic materials can serve as nucleation sites but biological materials have been shown to be much more effectiveness. This effectiveness has been shown to be highly species-specific.

Such discoveries are remarkable because, until recently, it was generally assumed that microorganisms were confined to the lower layers of the atmosphere. It is now known that microbes exist in the stratosphere and perhaps much higher, and a growing body of evidence suggests that high-altitude organisms can effect life on Earth.

Efforts are already underway to determine the upper limits of the Earth’s biosphere. In 2011, NASA launched a balloon to 120,000 feet in an attempt to collect such organisms.

Balloon science is limited, however. Balloons go where the winds take them, rather than where researchers want them, and post-flight recovery efforts are not always successful.

In the near future, reusable suborbital spacecraft will provide new capabilities for sampling upper-atmosphere organisms on a regular basis with high reliability. Correlating atmospheric microfauna with the development of weather systems will require a large of flights over an extended period of time. This is the type of repetitive science that can can benefit greatly from the participation of citizen scientists and citizen space explorers.

Written by Astro1 on April 17th, 2012 , Astrobiology, Citizen Science (General)

The Full Fuselage Trainer, which NASA used to train Shuttle astronauts for more than 30 years, is now on its way to the Museum of Flight in Seattle.

The first component of the trainer to arrive, a Space Shuttle Main Engine mockup, was unveiled today, April 17, at the museum’s new Charles Simonyi Space Gallery. Museum of Flight president Doug King needed some help from museum employees and ladder to unwrap the artifact at an 11 am press conference.

Museum of Flight president Doug King unveils Space Shuttle Main Engine mockup

The Museum of Flight also received word today that other components of the full-scale Shuttle trainer are on the way. NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston sent word that the cockpit section has been lifted off its cradle and prepared for shipment.

The Museum of  Flight expects the main sections of the trainer to arrive on June 16. On that day, visitors to the museum will have the rare chance to see the arrival of a NASA Super Guppy aircraft, which will transport the exhibit. The museum hopes to have the Full Fuselage Trainer ready for display less than 24 hours after arrival, when the museum opens its doors on June 17 for Fathers Day.

The Museum of Flight built the Charles Simonyi Gallery to support its bid for a Space Shuttle Orbiter. Although the museum did not receive the hoped-for orbiter, museum personnel are pleased with the  Full Fuselage Trainer. In many ways, King said, the FFT is actually a better exhibit. The FFT affords more opportunities for close interaction than an actual orbiter would, which supports King’s goal to make the Museum of Flight the premiere educational aerospace museum in the nation.

Because it does not have wings, the Full Fuselage Trainer also affords more space for secondary exhibits, which will be devoted to the future of spaceflight. The museum has already begun the installation of exhibits that highlight new commercial space ventures from Armadillo Aerospace, Blue Origin, Boeing, Masten Space Systems, Sierra Nevada, Space-X, Virgin Galactic, and XCOR Aerospace, as well as NASA’s potential future manned mission to an asteroid.

Meanwhile, on the opposite coast, the Shuttle orbiter Discovery arrived at the National Air and Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center at Dulles Airport.

Written by Astro1 on April 17th, 2012 , Education, Events, Museums

The Space Studies Institute has announced The Great Enterprise Initiative, a research and development project to advance the permanent human settlement of space.

Details were announced April 13 by SSI president Gary Hudson speaking at the Space Access 2012 conference in Phoenix, Arizona.

The Great Enterprise Initiative includes the develop of two laboratory facilities aimed at advancing critical technology and science for long-term human residence in space.

One of the laboratories will be terrestrially based. E-Lab’s mission will be to prove out the closed-cycle environmental systems necessary for long-term space habitats. The focus will not be on developing individual systems but integrating a full-scale “system of systems” to support life for years on end? E-Lab will probably located at Mojave Air and Space Port, although the final location will be dependent on donor interests.

The other laboratory will be ina space, coorbital with (but not physically attached to) the International Space Station. G-Lab will explore the unanswered question of what level of gravity is necessary for long-term health and biological development. Currently, the only data points are from Earth (1 g) and orbital missions (0 g). Apollo missions to the Moon were too short to provide meaningful data. The shape of the curves between those two data points is currently pure speculation. G-Lab will be orbiting centrifuge facility designed to fill in some of the missing intermediate data points. This information is crucial for the design of future space habitats as well as long-duration deep-space exploration missions.

G-Lab might have a permanent crew of scientists, like ISS, or it might be human tended. Details will on the results diet future design studies and the success of fundraising efforts. Development schedule also depends on the success of SSI fundraising. In the best case, G-Lab could be in orbit by 2017

For more details, see the Space Studies Institute website.

Written by Astro1 on April 15th, 2012 , Space Settlement

The Open University has created an online course covering the solar system’s most important satellites. Course materials include videos on Earth’s Moon as well as Europa, Phobos, Deimos, and Titan, an interactive quiz book, and a multi-touch textbook on moon rocks. All available free on iTunes.

Moons: an introduction from The Open University

Written by Astro1 on April 11th, 2012 , Education, Lunar Science, Planetary science Tags:

The Pavilion Lake Research Project is a joint project of NASA and the Canadian Space Agency to study the origin of freshwater microbialites, carbonate structures that form in water with the help of microorganisms, in British Columbia’s Pavilion Lake and Kelly Lake. Fossil microbialites represent some of the earliest traces of life on Earth. Today, microbialites are usually confined to environments that are often too harsh for most organisms. Pavilion Lake and Kelly Lake are usual because they represent non-extreme environments where microbialites form alongside fish, plants, and other species.

Astrobiologists are interested in microbialites because they can shed light on the types of structures that microbes form and the biological signatures they leave behind. This may help to identify traces of life on other worlds. NASA and CSA are using DeepWorker submersibles, scuba, and underwater robots to explore both lakes. Goals are to map the distribution and characterize the morphology of microbialites, measure their growth rate, characterize the microbial community (bacteria, viruses, and algae) living in and on the microbialites, and identify biological, chemical, and physical factors that contribute to the formations.

The Pavilion Lake Research Project needs help from citizen scientists to tag and organize its vast collection of underwater photographs. Participants use a program called Mapper, available at get Citizen scientists have tagged over one million photographs since the tool went public in October, 2011.



Written by Astro1 on April 11th, 2012 , Astrobiology

Raspberry Pi is a credit-card-sized (3.37-inch by 2.125-inch) single-board Linux computer based on an ARM processor. Developed by the Raspberry Pi Foundation in England, the Raspberry Pi Model B sells for just $35. A less expensive $25 version called the Model A is expected shortly.

Raspberry Pi is cheaper than competing products such as the $89 BeagleBone. The price difference is probably not significant for space applications at the present time, but we’re looking forward to see the day when a $64 price difference becomes significant.

Supply appears to be constrained at the present time. The Raspberry Pi Foundation is currently trying to limit sales to one per customer in order to spread them around. In the US, Raspberry Pi is available through Element 14.



Written by Astro1 on April 11th, 2012 , Electronics

The BeagleBone, introduced late last year, is a stripped-down version of the BeagleBoard, a low-cost, fan-less single-board computer based on the low-power Texas Instruments ARM Cortex-A8 processor.

The BeagleBoard itself is amazingly compact – just 3 inches by 3 inches. The more powerful BeagleBoard-xM is slightly larger, 3.25 inches by 3.25 inches. The BeagleBone is the runt of the litter, at 3.4 inches by 2.1 inches. All three boards are open-source hardware developed by Texas Instruments.

All three Beagle boards offer laptop-class performance, which makes them good choices for embedded applications that require more power than microcontrollers like Arduino can deliver. The boards can run a variety of operating systems. Linux is the usual choice but Android and Windows Compact Embedded 7 are also possibilities. Given the size and processing power, we expect to see a lot of these boards flying as experiment controllers on suborbital spacecraft.

The BeagleBone is available for $89 at the Maker ShedDigi-Key, or AdaFruit. The BeagleBoard and BeagleBoard-xM are available for $125 and $149, respectively, at Digi-Key or Mouser Electronics.



Written by Astro1 on April 11th, 2012 , Electronics

The Mintronics: Menta is a new Arduino-compatible micro controller board that includes onboard prototyping space and fits in a mint box. The prototyping area is sized for a mini-breadboard so it’s also possible to wire circuits without soldering. It’s available for $35 at the Maker Shed.

Mintronics: Menta microcontroller board


Written by Astro1 on April 10th, 2012 , Electronics

Penn State has an astrobiology project for citizen scientists. Researchers at Penn State are studying the biogeography of microorganisms in isolated pockets around the globe. They want to determine the degree to which populations are isolated and whether the isolation suggests an allopatric speciation model for prokaryotes.

For this study, researchers need water samples from domestic water heaters. They are seeking help from citizen scientists in 2-3 households per state. They’ve covered most of the US, but they’re still looking for households in Alaska, Arkansas, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Dakota, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, and Vermont.

The project requires only about 30 minutes. All you need to do is collect a sample of tap water and fill out a brief questionnaire. If you’re interested, go here.

Written by Astro1 on April 10th, 2012 , Astrobiology

Galaxy Zoo, the Zooniverse project that asks citizen scientists to help classify galaxies in Hubble Space Telescope images, has an iPhone app. Citizen scientists on the go can now classify galaxies on their iPhone (or iPad or iPod Touch).

You can download the Galaxy Zoo app from the App Store on iTunes. Galaxy Zoo also has an Android app available on Google Play.

Galaxy Zoo iPhone and Android apps


Written by Astro1 on April 10th, 2012 , Astronomy

Robert Cong, product marketing manager at Jameco Electronics, has posted an article on using nitinol muscle wire for motor-less mechanical motion.

Nitonol, a nickel-titanium alloy, is sometimes called memory metal. It’s been around since the 1960’s. In the 1973, an engineer at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory used nitinol to build the world’s first solid-state heat engine.

Nitinol has some interesting possible applications robotics, low-cost space probes, and nanosatellite deployment mechanisms. We would like to see citizen scientists explore some of those possibilities.

More information on nitinol is available at Nitinol University.



Written by Astro1 on April 10th, 2012 , Innovation, Nanosatellites, Robotics

Was NASA’s experiment with low-cost “Faster, Better, Cheaper” planetary missions really a failure? The conventional wisdom is being challenged by acquisition professions.

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Written by Astro1 on April 10th, 2012 , Innovation

There’s been considerable debate in the last few years about the relative merits of orbital assembly versus superheavy lift.

The argument for superheavy lift is pretty straightforward. Very large rockets enable payloads to be launched in one piece. Their advantage is not simply in the weight they can carry but, more importantly, in their large-diameter payload shrouds. Those very-large shrouds come in very handy for launching things like large-aperture telescope mirrors for future very large space telescopes.

In 2007, for example, NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center did a study of how future space telescopes could be launched on the then-proposed Ares V rocket.

Ares V launches 8-meter space telescope

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Written by Astro1 on April 10th, 2012 , Astronomy

When we were growing up, the typical high school offered a long list of shop courses. There was woodworking, metalshop, auto body and engine shop, ceramics, electrical, carpentry, mechanical drawing…. Today, those courses are mostly gone. In most high schools, they have been replaced by a “technology” department that is limited to a computer lab with, perhaps, if students are lucky a course in Computer Aided Drafting and Design but no way for students to actually build an object after they’ve designed it in CADD.

There are many reasons for this. School budgets, liability concerns, and Federal regulation (“No Child Left Behind”) have all played a role. So, too, has the growing emphasis on college preparation. Shop classes have traditionally been viewed as second-class education, for the students who were never going to make it into college. As more and more educators started to embrace the idea of a college education for everyone (a goal that, truthfully, doesn’t make much sense), the relevance of shop classes seemed to be greatly diminished. That is unfortunate, and not only for those students who are simply not equipped for college-level work. Even students who are college-bound can benefit from the skills learned in shop class, and in many professions, those skills are essential. Scientists need the ability to build and maintain experimental equipment. An engineer who sits down at a CADD station to design a new product needs the experience to know that what he’s designing can actually be built.

For that reason, we’re pleased to hear about the Makerspace program.  Developed by Make magazine editor and publisher Dale Dougherty and Dr. Saul Griffith of Otherlab, the Makerspace program is supported by an award from DARPA’s Manufacturing Experimentation and Outreach (MENTOR) program.

The Makerspace program is reinventing the shop class and the computer lab. Modeled after hackerspaces, makerspaces will be places for students to explore their own interests, learn to use tools, and develop their own projects. Makerspaces can be embedded in existing organizations or standalone entities. The Makerspace program will develop modular specifications for low-cost makerspaces in educational settings. The program will develop teacher guides for maker projects, build a collaborative online platform for teachers and students, integrate new tools for Computer Aided Design and Manufacturing, and prototype a low-cost open-source CNC machine for schools.

The program’s goal is to have makerspaces in 1000 high schools in three years. We urge teachers, students, parents, and other interested citizens to visit and check it out.


Written by Astro1 on April 10th, 2012 , Citizen Science (General), Education

Citizen scientists who are interested in the Moon can find a wide range of activities. Whatever your level of ability, resources, and interest, there is a citizen-science activity you can participate in.

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Written by Astro1 on April 9th, 2012 , Astronomy, Lunar Science, Nanosatellites, Space Adventures, SpaceX Tags:

Space Exploration Technologies wants to build a new spaceport in Cameron County, Texas.

The FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation has just filed a notice of intent to begin preparation of an environmental impact statement and hold public hearings on the project. The NOI can be found here.

SpaceX proposes to “launch the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy orbital vertical launch vehicles from a private site located in Cameron County, Texas.”  If the project is approved, SpaceX will build a vertical launch area and a control center area to support up to 12 commercial launches per year. Up to two launches each year would be Falcon Heavy. The remainder would be Falcon 9 and “a variety of smaller reusable suborbital launch vehicles.”

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Written by Astro1 on April 9th, 2012 , Spaceports, SpaceX Tags:

Dr. Ian Crawford, Reader in Planetary Science and Astrobiology at Birkbeck College London, has published a paper that seeks to dispel the myth that robots are more efficient than humans for conducting space science.  The paper, published in Astronomy and Geophysics, is available for PDF download here.

Dr. Crawford says, “There is a widely held view in the astronomical community that unmanned robotic space vehicles are, and will always be, more efficient explorers of planetary surfaces than astronauts. Partly this is due to a common assumption that robotic exploration is cheaper than human exploration (although, as we shall see, this isn’t necessarily true if like is compared with like).”

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Written by Astro1 on April 9th, 2012 , Space Exploration (General) Tags:

A look at where NASA could be going in a few years. The artists have taken some liberties with the mission timeline, of course. Astronauts would spend a lot more time exploring the target.



Written by Astro1 on April 9th, 2012 , Space Exploration (General) Tags:

It is often said that history is written by the winners. Space history is no exception.

Everyone knows that Apollo 11 that landed the first man on the Moon. Very few people know about the important role Gemini played in that accomplishment. In a very real sense, it was Gemini, not Apollo, that landed Neil Armstrong on the Moon.

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Written by Astro1 on April 6th, 2012 , Space History Tags:

A senior review by outside experts has recommended that NASA extend the operating life of the Hubble and Kepler space telescopes.

If NASA accepts the recommendations, which seems likely, Kepler would get another four years of life. That is a major extension for the exoplanet telescope, which was originally designed for a 3.5-year mission. Kepler has been in orbit for just over three years.

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Written by Astro1 on April 5th, 2012 , Astronomy

The NASA Advisory Council – a group of bureaucrats and citizens appointed to provide guidance to NASA – has called for the agency to pick a destination for its future manned space program as soon as possible.

“Now is the time to pick a specific destination in order to focus the NASA, international agencies and contractor teams on a specific destination, such as Mars,” the Council stated. “We believe that a focused mission with a specific end objective, as has been the case for over 50 years for Human Spaceflight Programs, would also greatly benefit the NASA workforce, current and future domestic and international partners and the public stakeholders.”

The mere fact that you’ve done something for over 50 years is not a good reason to continue doing it, however. As the old saying goes, “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always gotten.”  The last 50 years of human spaceflight have been filled with promises that were never achieved, so it’s not obvious that following the practices of the past is necessarily the best way forward.

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Written by Astro1 on April 5th, 2012 , Space Exploration (General)