The Lowell Oberservatory has created an Amateur Research Initiative. Lowell is seeking help from citizen scientists in several areas. Some projects require citizen scientists to have their own telescopes, while others can be performed only.

Projects that require telescopes include obtaining ultra-deep images of dwarf galaxies, creating light curves for slowly rotating asteroids, determining stellar rotation periods and finding stellar eclipses and giant planet transits, improving the orbits of Centaurs and Kuiper Belt Objects, and monitoring star-forming regions for outburst events.

Other projects include examining old image to find asteroids that were missed by an automated search; examining photometric data for signs of exoplanets, variables stars, or other transient objects; and identifying historic scientific instruments from the Lowell Observatory’s extensive collection.

Written by Astro1 on May 31st, 2012 , Astronomy

Sierra Nevada conducted the first captive carry test of the Dream Chaser today. The full-scale flight-test article was carried aloft by a Sikorsky Skycrane helicopter at Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport in Broomfield, Colorado.

The test is an interim step toward unpowered drop, glide, and landing tests at Edwards Air Force Base, California, scheduled for later this year. For more further details on the program, see Dream Chaser Tests Hint at Suborbital Possibilities.


Written by Astro1 on May 29th, 2012 , Sierra Nevada

VIA Technologies has announced the APC, a $49 Android PC.

The APC is powered by a WonderMedia ARM processor. It runs a custom build of Android that has been optimized for keyboard and mouse input and includes a browser and  selection of preinstalled apps. It consumes only 4 watts of power at idle and 13.5 watts at maximum load.

The APC is based on the new Neo-ITX form factor, measuring 17 centimeters by 8.5 centimeters. So, it will fit into a 2U CubeSat form factor, if you want to use it for a citizen science experiment on one of our launches. (See our Call for Experiments.)

For more information, see the APC website.

Android PC

Written by Astro1 on May 29th, 2012 , Electronics, Innovation

Bill Hammack, the Engineer Guy, explains.

Written by Astro1 on May 29th, 2012 , Electronics

Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) has received the first order for its Falcon Heavy rocket.

A joint press release from Intelsat and SpaceX announced the contract for the launch of an Intelsat satellite into geosynchronous transfer orbit. Intelsat chief technology officer Thierry Guillemin said, “Timely access to space is an essential element of our commercial supply chain. Our support of successful new entrants to the commercial launch industry reduces risk in our business model. Intelsat has exacting technical standards and requirements for proven flight heritage for our satellite launches. We will work closely with SpaceX as the Falcon Heavy completes rigorous flight tests prior to our future launch requirements.”

This contract represents another step forward for SpaceX. SpaceX chief executive officer Elon Musk said, “The Falcon Heavy has more than twice the power of the next largest rocket in the world. With this new vehicle, SpaceX launch systems now cover the entire spectrum of the launch needs for commercial, civil and national security customers.” Falcon Heavy also plays a key role in Musk’s long-range plans for sending humans to Mars.

Commercial customers like Intelsat may also help convince the critics of SpaceX’s viability. After last week’s successful docking of the SpaceX Dragon capsule with the International Space Station, Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL) released a bizarre sour-grapes statement stating, “The reality remains that SpaceX has spent hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to launch a rocket nearly three years later than planned. The ‘private’ space race is off to a dilatory start at best, and the commercial space flight market has yet to materialize.”

We’re not sure what Shelby means by the “commercial space flight market.” If he means human spaceflight, he seems to have missed the steady stream of citizen space explorers who have visited ISS, beginning with Dennis Tito. If satellites count, he’s missed all of the previous commercial customers who’ve signed with SpaceX – ORBCOMM, MDA Corporation, SES, Thaicom, NSPO, Asiasat, Satélites Mexicanos, Space Systems Loral, CONAE, Iridium, Spacecom, and Bigelow Aerospace  – as well as those served by United Launch Alliance, Orbital Sciences Corporation, and their foreign competitors. Shelby also failed to note that the Space Launch System, mandated by Shelby and other Congressmen over NASA’s objections, is spending not hundreds of millions but billions of taxpayer dollars and will be much later to the party than SpaceX, if it shows up at all.

SpaceX Falcon Heavy launch vehicle commercial rocket

Written by Astro1 on May 29th, 2012 , SpaceX

This is the first in a series of posts that will suggest some experiments we’d like to see citizen scientists build for our suborbital flights.

NASA performed a soldering experiment aboard the International Space Station on five occasions between April 2003 and April 2005, producing a total of 86 samples. The following video shows ISS science officer Mike Fincke performing the soldering experiment during Expedition 9 in 2004.

Soldering will be an important technique for repairing future spacecraft and systems, in orbit and at future destinations such as the Moon and Mars. On Earth, gas bubbles can cause the formation of pores that reduce the strength of a solder joint. In microgravity, these pores are more likely because gas bubbles have less chance to escape. Principal Investigator Richard Grugel of NASA Mashall Space Flight Center wanted to study the formation of solder joints, by video recording and examination of samples returned to Earth.

In this video, as the solder is heated, it becomes a molten blob with a droplet of rosin clinging tight to the outside. Then, as the temperature rises, the droplet starts to spin – a completely unexpected result.

The In-Space Soldering Investigation (ISSI) was developed after the Columbia accident as a cheap, quick experiment the astronauts could do with hardware that was already present aboard the space station. It was followed by the Reduced Gravity Soldering Experiment on Expedition 14 (September 2006 – April 2007) and the Component Repair Experiment on Expedition 18 (October 2008 – April 2009).

ISSI is an example of a low-cost experiment that can be done by humans in space but could also be automated easily. It may not be possible to do a complete component-repair experiment on a suborbital flight, but suborbital spacecraft could provide a great platform for studying the basic behavior of solder in microgravity without the cost and complexity of an ISS mission.

We’d like to see someone perform a solder experiment as one of our citizen-science payloads. (See our Call for Experiments.) One possible improvement over the original design might be better video imaging.

We think it might be interesting to observe the behavior of the solder using high-speed video. High-speed video cameras are usually very expensive and fairly large, but Casio has developed a series of inexpensive point-and-shoot cameras with rather remarkable high-speed video modes. The model numbers and features change slightly from year to year. Current models are the Casio Exilim ZR-10 and Exilim ZR-100.  These cameras list for $249 and $299, respectively, but generally sell for a little over $200 online. Older models such as the Exilim FC150 are also available through sources such as Ebay, and Casio just recently introduced the ZR-200 and ZR-300.

In addition to standard and high-definition video at 30 frames per second (fps), the EX-ZR10 can record 240-fps video at 432×320-pixel resolution and 480-fps video at 224×160.The EX-ZR100 has the same video modes plus 1000-fps at 224×64-pixel resolution. The 1000-fps video image is tiny but the 240- and even 480-fps videos look like they might be quite useful.

The new EX-ZR200 can record 120-fps video  at 640×480-pixel resolution, 240-fps video at 512×384, 480-fps video at 224×160, and 1000-fps video at 223×64. Details on the EX-ZR300 (not yet available in North America) are sparse but video modes are expected to be similar to the EX-ZR200.

In burst mode, the cameras are capable of shooting full-resolution still images (12 megapixels for the EX-ZR10 and EX-ZR100, 16 megapixels for the EX-ZR-200) at speeds of up to 30 fps.

Another useful feature these cameras provide, for citizen-science experimenters, is excellent close-focusing capability. The EX-ZR10 is capable of macro focusing at distances as close as 2 centimeters, while the EX-ZR100 and EX-ZR-200 can go as close as 1 centimeter.

So, there are a lot of imaging options to choose from with these cameras. Unfortunately, high-speed video and burst photography will fill up the camera’s buffer quite rapidly, so the shooting time at these speeds is quite limited. That means the experimenter will need some way to trigger the camera at the proper time. This could be done mechanically, with a mechanism that presses the camera’s shutter button, or electronically by hacking into the camera’s trigger circuit.

Lighting must be provided also. High-speed video requires lots of light because the shutter is necessarily open for a very brief period of time, and of course, the experiment will be in a closed box. The specifications for the new ZX-ZR-200 show higher ISO ratings, so it might have an advantage there, but camera noise  can be a problem at high ISO ratings (although manufacturers are working hard to improve it).

Here are some references you can look at, if you’d like to work on this experiment:

Gravitational Effects on Solder Joints (American Welding Society – Welding Journal)

In-Space Soldering Investigation Fact Sheet

Soldering in Reduced Gravity Experiment Fact Sheet

Component Repair Experiment Fact Sheet

Houston, We Have a Solution

Students to Study the Effects of Microgravity on Solder Joints

Soldering Surprise

Written by Astro1 on May 28th, 2012 , Electronics, Microgravity Tags:

Citizens in Space will be appearing at the Mini Maker Faire in Seattle on Saturday, June 2.

The Mini Maker Faire takes place at Seattle Center, the old World’s Fair site, on the 50th anniversary of the Seattle World’s Fair.

Our presentation is scheduled for 11:10 am. We hope to see you there.

Written by Astro1 on May 28th, 2012 , Citizens in Space, Events

Cockpit360 puts you inside the virtual cockpits of more than 50 aircraft from the North American P-51 to the Boeing  747. The views are not simulated; underlying images come from leading aerospace museums (mostly in the Northwest). It would be nice to see future versions including some of the new spacecraft now being developed. The iPhone app is a $5.99 download on the iTunes App Store.

Cockpit360 iPhone app

Written by Astro1 on May 27th, 2012 , Books and Resources, Education

Free Enterprise: The Art of Citizen Space Exploration will appear at the University of California Riverside’s ARTSblock from January 19 to March 23, 2013.

The exhibition, which has been in the planning stages since 2009, will be presented in all three ARTSblock venues: the California Museum of Photography, the Culver Center of the Arts, and the Sweeney Art Gallery.

The exhibit will present the work of artists such as French choreographer Kitsou Dubois, who has flown on over 22 parabolic flights.

Co-curator Tyler Stallings, artistic director of the Culver Center and director of Sweeney Art Gallery, said the recent events such as the SpaceX Dragon docking with ISS mark the dawn of a new kind of space race. “Outsourcing of space travel to private business represents a refocus from the cold war mentality of the 1960s in which space exploration was a grand, national assertion of collective identity, and ownership of the final frontier. In contrast, the president’s 2011 budget emphasizes private development of commercial sub-orbital flight and lunar exploration, signaling a shift from space as an abstract concept for exploration into a de-regulated realm, unconstrained, and exposed, to both socialization and capitalization. International artists will explore these untested territories with aerospace experts, engineers, scientists, visionaries and entrepreneurs.”

The exhibition may be the first of its kind in the US, but The Arts Catalyst in London has produced a number of similarly themed exhibitions. Since 2001, they have presented exhibitions on suborbital space, the International Space Station, and the Moon. The Arts Catalyst projects began with MIR (Microgravity Interdisciplinary Research), an ongoing project organized by The Arts Catalyst and the Marko Peljhan, associate professor of art and media arts and technology at UC Santa Barbara, who is also co-curating the Free Enterprise exhibition.

Written by Astro1 on May 25th, 2012 , Events

The successful capture and berthing of the SpaceX Dragon capsule is cause for celebration. The clockwork precision of the flight, with no trace of glitch or gremlin, speaks well for the technical competence of Elon Musk and his crew atmSpace Exploration Technologies.

This is a step forward for commercial space and very good news for the future of ISS, NASA’s future space exploration plans, and, of course, the SpaceX company. It is even good news for SpaceX competitors, such Boeing and Sierra Nevada, whose own case is boosted by the proof that commercial companies can deliver.

Today’s accomplishment will go a long way toward convincing Congress of the value of commercial space – and yet, convincing Congress (and some elements at NASA) should not have been this hard. ISS has been serviced before by quasi-commercial (though largely state-owned) Russian and European enterprises. The fact that there was so much resistance to allowing American companies to compete with Energia and Arianespace is a sad commentary on our current Congress and its lack of faith in American private enterprise. Seeing is believing, the saying goes, but St. Paul said that faith is evidence of things unseen. Today’s political leaders seem to have faith in nothing but themselves, but it will be hard for anyone to oppose commercial ISS missions after this.

So, why only two cheers, then? Because, as heretical as it might sound to say this, SpaceX is not the most important act in commercial space. SpaceX will ensure NASA’s access to the International Space Station, enable Bigelow Aerospace to proceed with its own space station plans, and perhaps even take humans to Mars, but it will be the suborbital companies like Armadillo Aerospace, Blue Origin, Masten Space Systems, Virgin Galactic, and XCOR Aerospace that open up space for the rest of us.

In 1974, the influential and widely circulated Business Week ran a story on Seymour Cray and his supercomputer, which it called “the machine that will change the world.” That same month, Popular Electronics, a small hobbyist publication which almost no one read, ran a cover story on the Altair 8800. Not “the machine that will change the world,” but “the computer you can build.” The Altair was not a powerful computer, and almost nobody took it seriously, except the people who wanted one – and there were a lot of them. Of course, we know which machine ultimately changed the world.

Reusable suborbital spacecraft will also change the world. They will enable large numbers of people to build and fly experiments, and to fly in space themselves. Dramatic reductions in  launch costs, not increases in capability, are what will truly open the space frontier, and those cost reductions are easier to achieve on the low end. We don’t expect a lot of people to agree with these statements. Many people won’t understand them at all, just as most people didn’t understand the importance of microcomputers when they first appeared in the 1970’s.

Even many people who call themselves “NewSpace” advocates don’t get it. A good example is the Space Frontier Foundation, which took control of the Suborbital Flight Experiment Workshop we developed and is now converting it into a seminar on how to build payloads to fly on traditional science platforms like ISS and weather balloons. Much like the (hypothetical) guy who showed up at Steve Jobs’s garage with a COBOL program on a stack of punch cards, they think they get it but they don’t.

That having been said, it was very important for everyone in commercial space, including the suborbital companies, for SpaceX to succeed. There were too many people out there, including legislators and investors, who who waiting to point fingers and say, “If Elon Musk couldn’t do it, nobody can.”

That statement is, of course, nonsense, especially when the value of “it” varies greatly from one company to another. This irrational attitude was fomented by some of the more rabid SpaceX fanboys whose mantra was, “If Elon Musk can’t do it…” — although not by the professionals at SpaceX, who know better. That overenthusiastic cheerleading had the unfortunate effect of tying the fate of the entire commercial space industry to the success of SpaceX on this one mission, which never should have happened. Fortunately, the Dragon capsule performed flawlessly, but still, the stakes were higher than they should have been. We didn’t need SpaceX to succeed today, but we couldn’t afford for them to fail. For that reason, we give SpaceX two solid cheers.


Written by Astro1 on May 25th, 2012 , SpaceX

It’s often said that NASA needs to develop a superheavy lift rocket, such as the Congressionally-mandated Space Launch System, to avoid orbital assembly costs.

An unspoken (and unproven) assumption is that orbital assembly costs will exceed the development costs of a new rocket.

Assuming that assumption is actually true, there’s another question that planners should ask themselves: “Do we believe it will never be necessary to do orbital assembly, of anything?”

If the answer is “No, we will need to do orbital assembly someday,” then the amount of money we spend on orbital assembly now should properly be considered a research-and-development expense, which is helping to build capabilities for future missions.

If the answer is “We will never need to do orbital assembly,” well, that’s pretty depressing, because it implies we will never have anything in space larger than what we can launch on a single vehicle. In other words, a dead-end space program. Does anyone really want to go that route?

But wait a minute, you might ask, didn’t we already learn how to do orbital assembly with the International Space Station? Well, yes, we learned how to do orbital assembly, but we certainly didn’t learn how to do orbital assembly well (cheaply and efficiently).

The question then becomes, is it reasonable to spend money now developing capabilities for future missions that haven’t been approved yet? To do “undirected technology development,” as former NASA Administrator Mike Griffin once put it? That’s a reasonable question. Some would argue that advanced technology development is what NASA’s all about, but others would disagree. On the other hand, “undirected technology development” is pretty much what NASA’s doing with the Space Launch System, which has no defined missions at the moment. The difference is that the capabilities we develop by learning to do cheap, efficient orbital assembly will be useful forever, while a superheavy lift rocket will only be useful until the payloads outgrow the rocket (as they inevitably will).

Written by Astro1 on May 24th, 2012 , Space Exploration (General)

Interest in commercial spaceports is spreading rapidly as suborbital spacecraft like Armadillo’s Hyperion, Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShip Two, and XCOR’s Lynx move closer to flight. Florida continues its attempts to woo suborbital companies to spaceports in Jacksonville and the Kennedy Space Center / Cape Canaveral area. In Texas, there’s talk about establishing a commercial spaceport at Ellington Airport near Houston, in addition to the private spaceport operated by Blue Origin in west Texas and the orbital launch site proposed by SpaceX for south Texas. The latests state to join the race is Colorado, with Governor John Hickenlooper and other state officials backing a proposal to develop Spaceport Colorado at Front Range Airport in Aurora.

This interest is not limited to the United States. Space Expedition Curacao plans to operate an XCOR Lynx from a spaceport in the Caribbean, and Virgin Galactic has a similar deal with a United Arab Emirates group that wants to establish a spaceport in Abu Dhabi.

A new report indicates there is considerable interest in Great Britain as well.

The report, entitled Space: Britain’s New Infrastructure Frontier, was issued by the Institute of Directors and written by Dan Lewis, chief executive of the Economic Policy Centre with input from spaceport consultant Jim Bennett.

According to the report, Britain could develop a spaceport for a fraction of the $200 million being spent on Spaceport America in New Mexico.

Day and Bennett believe that spaceports should be viewed as regional development opportunities, rather than mass transportation facilities like airport. They believe that spaceports will serve as incubators for business and research. To maximize this potential, they say, spaceports should be located near major universities with strong science and engineering departments.

The potential of suborbital science is one of the primary drivers behind this push:

There is huge excitement in the scientific world about the low cost research opportunities that will be opened up by [Virgin Galactic] and XCOR. The Southwest Research Institute has already purchased 6 seats for its researchers to conduct experiments on [Virgin Galactic]  and another six on XCOR along with scientific payloads. Citizens in Space has bought 10 suborbital spaceflights from XCOR. The costs of doing small experiments in space will be dramatically lower and the queue a high factor lower… A spaceport for suborbital craft in the UK opens up quick, cheap and easy access to research for British-based researchers that wasn’t there before. Telescope time above the atmosphere is going to cost $50,000 rather than $10 million for example.

Citizen space exploration (aka space tourism) is not overlooked, either. The report says that a spaceport should be located in an area that would provide a good view of scenery from space, such as one of the existing air bases in Scotland, such as RAF Lossiemouth, or Northern Ireland. Those northern air bases are also considered good sites for satellite launches to polar orbit using upper stages launched from suborbital spacecraft such as Lynx Mark III.

One possible worry, or perhaps opportunity, is the possibility that Scotland might secede from the United Kingdom. If the matter of Scottish secession is not settled before a spaceport is established, it might create regulatory uncertainty for spaceport investors. As a result, the report suggests a possible alternative site on a manmade island in Severn Estuary at the eastern end of the Bristol Channel in southwest England. The site was previously considered for a new commercial airport, Severnside International, which was rejected on grounds of estimated cost (£2 billion). A spaceport can’t justify that price tag, either, but a dual-use facility might.

There is also the possibility that Scotland might secede before the spaceport is built. If that happens, the Scottish government might demand the removal of Royal Air Force bases from Scotland. That would create an opportunity for one of the newly vacant bases to become a dedicated spaceport.


Written by Astro1 on May 24th, 2012 , Spaceports

The Extremo Files at Wired magazine explains how the Irish potato famine relates to suborbital science.

Written by Astro1 on May 21st, 2012 , Astrobiology, Citizens in Space

Astrobiology Challenge invites public to build space hardware

(San Mateo, California) – A NASA-inspired competition is challenging citizen scientists to build hardware for collecting microorganisms at the edge of space.

Citizen scientists can win cash prizes up to $10,000 in the High Altitude Astrobiology Challenge, announced Saturday by Citizens in Space, a project of the United States Rocket Academy. If successful, their work may help stop a future epidemic.

Citizens in Space project manager Edward Wright announced the challenge at Maker Faire, the nation’s largest festival of do-it-yourself science and engineering, which attracts more than 100,000 people in the Bay Area.

“A NASA astrobiologist approached us with this idea,” Wright said. “Researchers have learned that the Earth’s biosphere extends to much higher altitudes than previously suspected – up to 100,000 feet or more. The upper atmosphere could serve as a global transport system for disease organisms. It could also be a breeding ground for new diseases due to increased mutation rates from high levels of background radiation.

“In the past, these organisms could only be collected by high-altitude balloons, with poor reliability. Low-cost suborbital spacecraft, such as the XCOR Lynx, will be able to sample these organisms repeatedly with high reliability.”

Citizens in Space has acquired an initial contract for ten suborbital spaceflights with XCOR Aerospace, the Mojave, California-based company that is developing the Lynx spacecraft. The winning hardware from the High Altitude Astrobiology Challenge will fly on all ten flights, along with other citizen-science experiments.

“We have space for about 100 small experiments, and we’re making all of it available to citizen scientists,” Wright said. “Thanks to rapid advances in technology, it’s now possible to build high-quality space-science hardware with off-the-shelf parts, stuff you might pick up at Radio Shack or Home Depot. We want to see what citizen scientists can do with those parts.”

“Citizen scientists are doing amazing things,” said Lt. Col. Steve Heck (USAF-ret.), a science teacher from Milford, Ohio who is one of three citizen astronaut candidates selected to fly as payload operators. “They’re discovering exoplanets and dinosaurs, monitoring climate and endangered species, and helping to map the human genome. The development of reusable suborbital spacecraft will be the next great enabler, allowing citizens to participate in space exploration and space science.

“There may be new species up there we know nothing about. We want to find those species.”

The High Altitude Astrobiology Challenge offers money, fame, and the chance to save the planet from killer microbes from the edge of space — but there’s one more incentive for citizen scientists to enter the competition.

“We plan to select another seven astronaut candidates over the next 12-24 months,” Heck said. “When we do, citizen scientists who have submitted hardware for our flights will be among the first in line.”

Written by Astro1 on May 21st, 2012 , Astrobiology, Citizens in Space

NASA has signed a Space Act agreement which turns the nine-year-old, $150-million Galaxy Evolution Explorer (Galex) ultraviolet space telescope over to the California Institute of Technology. Caltech will raise money from various sources to put the telescope back into operation.

Committed funders are the Keck Institute of Space Studies, a consortium of Israeli universities led by the Weizmann Institute of Science near Tel Aviv, Cornell University, and an international consortium that goes by the unwieldy name of GAMA/Herschel-Atlas/DINGO. Caltech is seeking additional funds from private donors, philanthropic foundations, and corporate sponsors.

If this Space Act is successful, it might provide a model for other space telescopes such as Hubble, which NASA plans to decommission in a few years. NASA plans to replace Hubble with the James Webb Space Telescope, but Webb is designed primarily for observations in the infrared, rather than visible wavelengths. There is likely to be some unhappiness when the public realizes that the visible-light images, which have made Hubble so popular, will be coming to an end. With the advent of low-cost launch and space servicing, it might be possible to keep space observatories like Hubble operational indefinitely. The question is, will the low-cost revolution come soon enough, or will Hubble be deorbited before it arrives, much as Skylab came down while waiting for the Shuttle to become operational?

Written by Astro1 on May 16th, 2012 , Astronomy

There is considerable concern in the halls of Congress about the Chinese space program. Many legislators, such as Rep. Frank Wolfe (R-VA) fear that China may be catching up and about to surpass the United States.

The reasons for that concern (which verges on panic in some quarters) are a bit beyond our ken. The Chinese space program is just now approaching (at a rather slow rate) milestones the US and Soviet Union achieved more than 30 years ago. Its Shenzhou capsule is not an original development but based on imported Soyuz technology. It is, more over, a program with no useful military applications. Using Shenzhou, China might be abel to build a small space station or possibly even pull off a Moon landing, at very great expense, but those are things the United States did long ago.

From a national-security viewpoint, China’s other space program should be of greater concern. The Shelong, or Divine Dragon, spaceplane project was leaked to the press in 2007. Very little is known about the project, apart from one photograph that shows a test article (possibly subscale) being carried beneath the fuselage of a Chinese bomber.

Divine Dragon (Shelong) Chinese spaceplane

It’s possible Divine Dragon might be nothing more than an experimental test vehicle, like the USAF X-37. It’s also possible that Divine Dragon might be much more.

During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union had military manned space programs that ran in parallel with the civilian programs. The primary focus of the US program was the X-20 DynaSoar. The Soviet equivalent was the MiG-105 Spiral, whose aerodynamic configuration inspired NASA’s HL-20 and Sierra Nevada’s Dreamchaser. The MiG-105 example is especially relevant.

One of the most important missions envisioned for the MiG-105 was anti-surface warfare. For that mission, MiG-105 spaceplanes would operate in hunter/killer pairs. One spaceplane would travel slightly ahead of the other, in the same orbit, using a powerful radar to locate US carriers. The hunter would transmit the targeting information to the second spaceplane, which would then kill the target with a large missile.

Had the MiG-105 been fully developed and successfully deployed, it would have changed the balance of power at sea. The global strike capability provided by such a spaceplane would make aircraft carriers obsolete, just as carriers made battleships obsolete in the 1930’s. Fortunately of the US, the Soviet design relied on a first-stage concept with a very advanced high-speed air-breathing engine. Such an engine was science fiction at the time and would be extremely challenging even today. Nor was it necessary – a more conventional rocket-powered first stage could have been chosen, and the MiG-105 spaceplane itself was a very sound concept even if its booster was overly ambitious. The United States dodged a bullet because the Soviet Union made a poor design choice.

The United States cannot count on dodging every bullet, however. It is quite possible that China has something similar to MiG-105 in mind – having the capability to sink US carriers, at will, anywhere in the world would be of obvious interest to the Chinese military  – and we can’t necessarily count on China making the same bad design choices as the Soviet Union.

We find it puzzling that China hawks like Rep. Wolfe are making such a big deal about Shenzhou while ignoring Divine Dragon. Of course, they have access to classified intelligence which we do not. Perhaps the CIA is telling them that Divine Dragon is not a threat or has been discontinued. Given the number of CIA intelligence failures in the past, however, that is not something we would want to bet the nation’s future on.  Prudence would seem to call for a stronger response, including revitalizing the US Military Space Plane project, which has been moribund for years due to lack of funding. (Note: we are talking about the operational Military Space Plane, not the experimental X-37.)

We’re also puzzled why Rep. Wolfe has used Shenzhou as a justification for taking money away from NASA’s commercial space development programs and giving it to Orion and the proposed Space Launch System. If Shenzhou is a threat to US interests and security, as Wolfe believes, companies like SpaceX would seem to be the best hope for countering it. Chinese space leaders have expressed open concern about SpaceX’s launch prices, which they do not believe they can meet. They are not alone. Executives of the European launch Arianespace has expressed similar concerns privately. Some believe that Arianespace could be out of business within four years.

Military leaders know that the best strategy is not to throw strength against strength, but strength against weakness. The commercial private sector is a strength America has which Communist China cannot match. It would be a puzzling choice if Congressional leaders like Rep. Wolfe chose to ignore that asymmetrical advantage.

Written by Astro1 on May 16th, 2012 , Space Exploration (General), SpaceX

Courtesy of XCOR Aerospace and Citizens in Space.

XCOR Aerospace Lynx cockpit courtesy XCOR Aerospace and Citizens in Space

Written by Astro1 on May 14th, 2012 , XCOR Aerospace

As we’ve said previously, we’re big fans of science fairs. Science fairs provide a rare opportunity for high-school students have to engage in true scientific research where the answer is a genuine unknown. The also provides an opportunity for top-level students to push the limits of academic achievement, going far beyond what classroom curriculum normally allows in this era of “No Child Left Behind” and “Teaching to the Test.” Science fairs have led universities to set up special programs where top-level competitors can gain access to university research labs, and tech companies are taking science fairs in new directions like the Google online science fair.

Currently, however, there is no world-class science-fair competition focused that’s specifically on space. That is rather surprising, given the historical connection between the space program and science education, dating back to the Sputnik era. We’d like to change that.

We’re proposing the Explore Space! competition – a world-class science fair for space.

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Astro1 on May 12th, 2012 , Citizen Science (General), Education

The SpaceShip Two flight-test program may be experiencing some delays, if a new article in Flight Global is accurate.

The article quotes an unnamed Virgin Galactic source saying the company would have “some drop tests” in June or July and “a lot of drop tests” in the third quarter.

That would indicate progress for SpaceShip Two, which has not flown since it entered a deep stall during its last glide flight on September 29, 2011. It would be slower progress than recently expected, however. Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides had been predicting powered flights this summer. According to the new article, powered test flights are now expected to begin around the end of the year. By interesting coincidence, that’s the same time frame in which XCOR Aerospace expects to begin powered test flights of the Lynx.

Editorial note: We are not suggesting that Virgin Galactic / Scaled Composites and XCOR are in a race. Timelines for flight test are properly dictated by engineering and safety considerations. Both organizations have shown a high degree of professionalism, and we are confident that neither will allow its engineering judgement to be compromised by a “racing” mentality.

Written by Astro1 on May 11th, 2012 , Scaled Composites, Virgin Galactic, XCOR Aerospace

You can subscribe to the online Journal of Small Satellites at no charge through December 31, 2012. Click here to subscribe.

Written by Astro1 on May 11th, 2012 , Books and Resources, Nanosatellites

Flexure Engineering is proposing a modification to the CubeSat standard to meet the requirements of lunar missions: longer duration, higher radiation, and more extreme thermal environments compared to Low Earth Orbit missions. The LunarCube standard would also address integration and operational issues of multiple LunarCubes on one ride-along mission or lander.

The proposed standard was discussed in a paper at the 43rd Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in March, 2012. Further discussions will take place at an open forum, the 1st International Workshop on LunarCubes (LunarCubes: The Next Frontier), which is scheduled to take place  October 4-6 in Mountain View, California. The proposed workshop schedule includes morning and afternoon sessions on software, electronics, mechanical issues, orbital missions, surface issues, and funding.

Flexure estimates there could be five to ten lunar-lander ride opportunities in the coming decade, based  on five national space programs and 25 Google Lunar X-Prize teams. In addition, with weak stability boundary transfers from Geosynchronous Earth Orbit to lunar orbit, every GEO satellite location is a potential starting point for lunar orbit missions.

For more information, see the LunarCubes website.

Written by Astro1 on May 11th, 2012 , Innovation, Nanosatellites

The National Science Foundation is sponsoring a CubeSat workshop in the DC area on Thursday, May 24.

The event, which carries the rather wordy title of Workshop to Explore the Utility of Cubesat Projects for Scientific Research and Technology Advances and STEM Education and Workforce Development, takes place from noon to 3:00 pm in the atrium of the NSF building at 4201 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, VA 22230.

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Written by Astro1 on May 11th, 2012 , Events, Nanosatellites

Rick Tumlinson calls for A Unified Vision for Space.

Tumlinson says that the ultimate goal of US space policy must be human settlement, which is good in itself but not good enough. To quote a line from the TV series Babylon 5, “You must do the right thing for the right reason.” Settlement is the right reason, but we must go about it the right way.

Tumlinson says, “It is time to declare that the goal of the United States in space is the settlement of the solar system, from low Earth orbit to the Moon and Mars.”

That’s like Orville Wright declaring that the goal of the US should be the establishment of an air transportation system, starting with nonstop flights from New York to Paris, forgetting about local and transcontinental flights.

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Written by Astro1 on May 11th, 2012 , Citizen Exploration

Sierra Nevada has revealed details of its test plans for the Dream Chaser at Spaceflight Now.

Sierra Nevada expects to begin captive-carry tests of the Dream Chaser test article from a Sikorsky S-64  Skycrane helicopter soon, perhaps before the end of May. The first captive-carry tests will take place in Colorado. The test article will be shipped to California this summer for additional captive carry tests leading to drop tests and automated landings at Edward Air Force base. The drop tests will also use a helicopter, either a CH-53 Sea Stallion or CH-47 Chinook.

This would lead to manual landing tests with a suborbital flight article in 2014, followed by automated flights to orbit in 2015 and crewed orbital flights in 2016.

Sierra Nevada Dream Chaser test article

The 2014 suborbital vehicle suggests some interesting possibilities. A suborbital Dream Chaser might provide a backup for Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShip Two, if that program runs into trouble.

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Written by Astro1 on May 10th, 2012 , Citizen Exploration, Sierra Nevada, Virgin Galactic