Space Expeditions Curacao (SXC), which is marketing flights in the XCOR Lynx, has produced this video of a spaceflight training flight in an Aero Vodochody L-39 Albatross.  The L-39 is a primary jet trainer developed and produced in Czechoslovakia from 1971 to 1999.


Written by Astro1 on October 30th, 2012 , Citizen Exploration, XCOR Aerospace

Dr. Anna-Lisa Paul, Research Associate Professor in the University of Florida’s Genetics Institute, has joined the Suborbital Applications Researchers Group. She is replacing Dr. Erika Wagner. Dr. Paul has an extensive background in molecular genetics with a specific interest in space research to study adaptive responses in extraterrestrial environments.

Dr. Wagner recently left MIT, where she ran the X-Prize Lab, to become business development manager at Blue Origin. She will also be an affiliate instructor in the new X-Prize Lab at the University of Washington.

Dr. Alan Stern, chairman of the Suborbital Applications Researchers Group, said, “We thank Erika, who has contributed greatly to raising the awareness of how commercial suborbital platforms can be used for research and education, and has helped build this nascent community. We’ll miss Erika’s energy and expertise, but I can think of no better addition to fill her shoes than Dr. Anna-Lisa Paul. Ann-Lisa has broad experience in space-based research in the life sciences area, and her enthusiasm is evident.  I truly look forward to working with her in furthering the research and education potential of these important platforms for science.”



Written by Astro1 on October 30th, 2012 , Citizen Exploration

SpaceX will continue to occupy its headquarters building in Hawthorne, California for at least the next 10 years, according to an article in the Daily Breeze. SpaceX reportedly made the commitment after a unanimous vote by the Hawthorne City Council to reduce the tax rates applied to the company.

SpaceX has signed an economic-development agreement with the city which includes a corporate-citizenship clause. The clause allows Hawthorne to use the SpaceX logo for its own branding. It also encourages SpaceX to get involved with schools and community events.

Katherine Nelson, SpaceX vice president of marketing and communications, said, “SpaceX is in a rapid growth mode. These incentives are just ensuring we’re in a position to continue to grow. We are always looking for the best opportunities for our business and for our growth, so we’re pleased we were able to come to an agreement with Hawthorne and we can keep our headquarters here.”

This doesn’t mean that all of SpaceX’s manufacturing facilities will necessarily be in Hawthorne. Sources close to SpaceX tell us the company is rapidly outgrowing its building there. Falcon Heavy, we are told, will likely require a new facility.

SpaceX Dragon capsule berthing at the International Space Station

Written by Astro1 on October 30th, 2012 , SpaceX

There’s no question that California is the leader in the Maker movement, but there are signs that Texas is moving to catch up.

The membership-based TechShop opened its first Texas location this month, in the Austin-Rock Rock area. The new TechShop is located conveniently next door to a Lowe’s superstore and even shares a common door, making it super-easy for makers to go for building suppliers. No additional Texas TechShop locations have been announced, but multiple sources tell us a Houston TechShop may be in the works.

TechShop Austin-Rock Rock location

Houston hackerspace TX/RX Labs is moving into a new home. An open house scheduled for last week was canceled because the plumbing wasn’t quite ready.

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Written by Astro1 on October 29th, 2012 , Citizen Science (General) Tags:

The MakerPlane Shop just opened today. For those who don’t know, the MakerPlane Project is an open-source aviation project to enable people to build safe, affordable light aircraft using CNC mills and 3D printers.  The MakerPlane will also include state-of-the-art digital flight instruments and displays running open-source software.

We probably won’t see MakerRocketships soon. Companies like Virgin Galactic and XCOR have worked for years to get where they are. It hasn’t been easy, even with a full-time staff and venture funding. Being first is always hard, though. Who knows what we might see in 10 or 20 years?


Written by Astro1 on October 29th, 2012 , Citizen Science (General)

The SpaceX Dragon capsule has undocked from the International Space Station and returned to Earth. Reports from SpaceX indicate that the capsule has been retrieved by the recovery boat and is on its way back to port.



A SpaceX press release states:

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Written by Astro1 on October 28th, 2012 , SpaceX

Felix Baumgartner has raised some hackles with critical comments about NASA’s future aspirations for Mars and Sir Richard Branson’s suggestion that someone might try a higher skydive from SpaceShip Two.

It appears that Baumgartner is already anxious about protecting his legacy.

Baumgartner’s comments are reminiscent of complaints by Sir Edmund Hillary and other pioneering mountaineers about modern climbers paying their way to the summit of Mount Everest.

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Written by Astro1 on October 28th, 2012 , Citizen Exploration

A graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics has devised a new method of deflecting Earth-approaching asteroids. Previous work has shown that an asteroid might be deflected by a swarm of smart pebbles. MIT’s Sung Wook Paek has expanded on that idea by replacing the pebbles with paintballs.


Asteroids are normally dark in color. Painting an asteroid white would alter the albedo, or reflectivity, of the asteroid. That, in turn, would alter the tiny, but measurable, thrust which sunlight imparts on the asteroid. Over a long period of time, that change in thrust could produce a significant change in the asteroid’s trajectory. A warning time of approximately 20 years would be required for this method to work.

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Written by Astro1 on October 27th, 2012 , Planetary Defense

Boeing CST-100 capsule and XCOR Lynx spacecraft

Boeing states that it is building its business case for the CST-100 capsule on two flights per year to the International Space Station.

XCOR Aerospace is building its business case for the Lynx spacecraft on the ability to fly four times a day.

Roll those numbers around in your mouth for a while.

Suborbital spaceflight is often dismissed as unimportant (just as the first microcomputers were dismissed as unimportant). It doesn’t have the same numbers – speed, energy, altitude, duration – as orbital spaceflight.

But like the first microcomputers, it will have the numbers that matter.

Written by Astro1 on October 23rd, 2012 , Boeing, XCOR Aerospace

Blue Origin is planning some major design changes for the next version of its New Shepard suborbital vehicle, according to MSNBC’s Alan Boyle.

Boyle reports that the new New Shepard will use a single liquid-hydrogen rocket engine, instead of five kerosene rocket engines. He quotes Blue Origin’s business-development manager Brett Alexander saying, “It’ll look a little different, but it’s essentially the same size.”

That statement is somewhat odd, because liquid hydrogen has a much lower density than liquid kerosene. Hydrogen is lighter and more energetic, so a smaller weight of propellant is required for the same mission but the volume is normally larger. That implies larger tanks. (This is one of the reasons why hydrogen-fueled airliners have never gotten past the drawing board. The fuselage always ends up being huge and filled mostly with fuel rather than passengers.)

In addition, the size of engine pumps scales with the volume of propellant to be pumped, rather than the weight. Hydrogen-fueled engines generally have a lower thrust-to-weight ratio than kerosene engines. That could be offset, though, by lower thrust requirements since the hydrogen weighs less than an equivalent amount of kerosene. There might also be some weight savings from replacing five smaller engines with one larger engine.

Also see Blue Origin Had a Great Day in West Texas.

Written by Astro1 on October 22nd, 2012 , Blue Origin

Six Italian scientists and a former government official have been sentenced to six-year prison terms for failing to predict an earthquake. The charge was practice. The scientists were effectively tried for scientific malpractice, although the prosecution did not use that term.

The implications of this verdict for scientific research in Italy are alarming. Malpractice suits have had a devastating effect on the medical industry. We hope this sort of thing doesn’t spread to other countries.

We’re all for holding government officials accountable for their failures, but this is ridiculous. No one can know the unknowable. Even meteorologists make mistakes, and weather forecasting is a much better developed field than earthquake prediction.

This verdict could have implications for planetary defense. A major asteroid impact could have effects felt on planet-wide scale. A scientist who fails to predict an asteroid impact might conceivably be held accountable in any country, including Italy. Such fears might cause scientists to avoid the field or to “cry wolf” by always erring on the side of caution, leading to an ultimate loss of public trust.

One prediction we’re willing to stand behind: there won’t be a lot of international seismology conferences held in Rome in the near future.


Written by Astro1 on October 22nd, 2012 , Planetary Defense, Space Policy and Management

Blue Origin successfully tested its launch escape system on October 19. Blue Origin founder (and CEO) Jeff Bezos posted a terse message on the Blue Origin website today: “The Blue Origin team worked hard and smart to pull off this first test of our suborbital Crew Capsule escape system. Please enjoy the photos and video. Gradatim Ferociter!”


The crew capsule was lofted to 2,307 feet by an Aerojet solid-rocket motor, then returned to Earth under three parachutes and touched down 1,630 feet from the launch pad. Blue Origin plans to use parachutes for routine landings as well as pad escape. The New Shepherd suborbital vehicle is divided into a crew capsule and a propulsion module, separated by an interstage section. The propulsion module will return to the launch pad for powered landing, but the crew capsule will separate and return to Earth by parachute.

“The use of a pusher configuration marks a significant departure from the traditional towed-tractor escape tower concepts of Mercury and Apollo,” said Blue Origin president and program manager Rob Meyerson. “Providing crew escape without the need to jettison the unused escape system gets us closer to our goal of safe and affordable human spaceflight.” Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX), Boeing, and Sierra Nevada planning to use pusher escape systems for their orbital crew capsules and spaceplane. Only NASA’s Orion capsule is sticking with the tried-and-true but inefficient tractor system.

This is one of the last tests to be conducted under Blue Origin’s Space Act Agreement with NASA. Blue Origin did not apply for continued funding under the final phase of the Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCap) program. Blue Origin will pursue continued development with its own funding from here on.

“The progress Blue Origin has made on its suborbital and orbital capabilities really is encouraging for the overall future of human spaceflight,” said NASA’s Commercial Crew Program manager Ed Mango. “It was awesome to see a spacecraft NASA played a role in developing take flight.”

Also see Design Changes for New Shepard.

Blue Origin Escape Test Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Astro1 on October 22nd, 2012 , Blue Origin Tags:


Virgin Galactic posted this video back in July.

Rewatching the video, it’s interesting to note Sir Richard Branson’s statement, “LauncherOne will… leverage the unique manufacturing and flight-test capabilities of Virgin Galactic’s sister-company TSC [The SpaceShip Company].” There is no mention of Scaled Composites.

Earlier this month, Virgin Galactic acquired full ownership of The Spaceship Company, which was previously 40% owned by Scaled Composites. The announcement was made quietly, after close of business on a Friday afternoon prior to a Monday holiday while SpaceX was dominating industry headlines with an ISS resupply mission.

In retrospect, it appears that Virgin Galactic and Scaled Composites were contemplated a separation for several months ahead of the announcement.

It’s also worth noting that there is no mention of LauncherOne on the Scaled Composites website. This raises some interesting questions about the team that’s developing LauncherOne. The TSC website seems to be down at the moment, but The Spaceship Company has seven job openings listed on Linkedin. None appear to be directly related to LauncerOne, however.

Written by Astro1 on October 21st, 2012 , Virgin Galactic

European Space Agency (ESA)  CHaracterising ExOPlanets Satellite (Cheops) mission

The European Space Agency has selected a Swiss proposal for funding as the first in a new class of small, low-cost science missions. Cheops (CHaracterising ExOPlanets Satellite) is planned for launch in 2017. The 30-cm (11.8-inch) telescope is designed for high-precision monitoring of a star’s brightness to detect planetary transits. Accurate transit measurements will allow scientists to determine the radius of transiting planets. It will also identify exoplanets with significant atmospheres.

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Written by Astro1 on October 19th, 2012 , Astronomy

During the 2008 Presidential campaign, an Obama education advisor named Steve Robinson got himself into hot water by suggesting that Americans, especially the younger generation, are no longer inspired by sending humans into space. According to Robinson, young people are more inspired by sending robots into space than sending humans. CNN journalist Miles O’Brien, who was moderating the debate where Robinson appeared, seemed to disagree with him.

The Obama campaign did not stand by those statements, which were later disavowed, but we’ve heard the same argument repeated many times, by various people. Recently, Professor Lawrence Krauss of Arizona State University (probably not a member of the “younger generation”) wrote that he found sending robots more exciting.

In our view, this debate is meaningless. Miles O’Brien asked the wrong question.

It doesn’t matter whether people are excited and inspired by sending humans into space. Very few people are excited and inspired by the idea of sending humans to Paris, Hawaii, or China – but lots of people are excited about going to Paris, Hawaii, or China.

People are not excited when a government employee, who they’ve never met, goes on a business trip to an exotic location. They are excited when they go on a trip to an exotic location.

For 50 years, government space programs have been telling the public that space exploration is important, without ever giving the public the chance to explore space. That is about to change. When it does, there will be no lack of excitement and inspiration.

Written by Astro1 on October 19th, 2012 , Citizen Exploration


A satellite tracker’s analysis of a meteor seen over the United Kingdom on September 21 suggests that it was an Aten asteroid, not space debris as originally believed.

Aten asteroids orbit the Sun at an average distance less than 1 AU (in other words, inside Earth’s orbit). Because their orbits are highly eccentric, most Aten asteroids cross the Earth’s orbit when approaching aphelion. This makes Aten asteroids potentially hazardous objects.

The asteroid 99942 Apophis is an Aten asteroid. Apophis, which was discovered in 2004, made news because it is large enough to be dangerous and was calculated to have a significant probability (2.7%) of hitting the Earth in 2029. Later estimates reduced that probability greatly but there is still sufficient uncertainty that some observers would like additional data.The Russian space agency Roscosmos recently announced plans for an unmanned mission to place a radio beacon on Apophis.

Aten asteroids are not only dangerous to the Earth, they are also difficult to detect and observe. Because Atens spend most of their time inside the Earth’s orbit, their sky position, as seen from the Earth, is close to the Sun. The brightness of the daytime sky interferes with observations by ground-based telescopes. Spaceborne telescopes don’t have the bright sky to contend with, but they have insrument-safety considerations that limit their ability to observe objects close to the Sun. If a space telescope like Hubble was accidentally pointed at the Sun, it would burn out a camera that costs hundreds of millions of dollars (and can no longer be replaced, since the Shuttle is retired). So, operators impose strict limits on telescope pointing to prevent it from getting too near the Sun.

One solution to this problem is the Atsa Suborbital Observatory, being developed by astronomers at the Planetary Science Institute and The Citadel. The Atsa Suborbital Observatory is a fairly small telescope, based on a 14-inch Celestron reflector, which will fly aboard the XCOR Lynx Mark III. Because the Atsa telescope is easily serviceable, it can be pointed very close to the Sun with little danger. Accidentally burning out a $500 CCD chip that can replaced the next day is not a catastrophe like damaging the Hubble.

In other news, a meteor the size of a car landed in the Martinez Hills in the San Francisco Bay Area. There are no reports of casualties or damage, but this is another reminder of the fact that our Earth is constantly being hit by objects from space. Sooner or later, we will be hit by something much larger and more dangerous.

Written by Astro1 on October 19th, 2012 , Planetary Defense

NASA Mars Sample Return MissionThe outgoing executive director of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics has cast doubt on one of NASA’s most coveted planetary-science missions.

Speaking at the International Symposium for Personal and Commercial Spaceflight on Wednesday, Major General Rocket Dickman (USAF-ret.) expressed skepticism about NASA’s ability to sustain Congressional support for a a $10-billion, 15-year Mars Sample Return mission.

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Written by Astro1 on October 18th, 2012 , Space Policy and Management, Space Settlement

We recently compared NASA’s $8 billion James Webb Space Telescope to the European Extremely Large Telescope, which will provide 6 times the resolution at 1/6 the price.

Soon afterward, we received a note from former NASA scientist-astronaut Ed Gibson, who operated the Apollo Telescope Mount during the Skylab 4 mission. Dr. Gibson thought we had understated the case: “The E-ELT has a second advantage over the JWST’s lower resolution and light collection area; it can be serviced as required; the JWST, unlike the HST, cannot be serviced insitu.”

To be fair, NASA is studying some ideas for in-space servicing of JWST, using the Orion capsule and Space Launch System. Impartial observers do not consider those ideas to be credible, however. An Orion mission to the Earth-Sun L-2 point, where JWST is to be located, would cost a minimum of $2 billion, for the launch alone. That assumes Orion and SLS are already developed and available when they are needed.

NASA Orion space telescope servicing concept

Beyond the matter of cost, there are all sorts of technical obstacles. The JWST is not designed for in-space servicing. The Orion capsule is not designed to provide a stable work platform for servicing missions. The L-2 point is located 1.5 million miles from Earth. At that distance, the round-trip time lag for communications is 16 seconds, limiting the ability of mission control to provide ground support during EVAs.

The United States needs to develop its ability to do in-space servicing in Low Earth Orbit and, eventually, in deep space. That ability needs to be developed in a sensible manner, however. Astronauts have been doing in-space maintenance and repairs since Skylab. The challenge now is to make in-space servicing cost-effective. Some will say robots are the answer, but robots are not a magic bullet. The 16-second time lag for communications at L-2 is an impediment for humans but a killer for robots. We need to develop a range of servicing methods, both human and robotic, but we also need to develop the supporting infrastructure including low-cost transportation to orbit, low-cost transportation in orbit, and appropriate, cost-effective on-orbit facilities. Most of this infrastructure will be developed commercially in the decades to come.

For now, it appears that NASA is trying to tie two expensive programs – JWST and Orion/SLS – together. That’s a strategy NASA has employed successfully in the past, with programs like the Space Shuttle and Space Station. It’s a dangerous strategy, however, which makes it harder for Congress to cancel one program but drives up overall costs. If Congress ever becomes serious about saving money, both programs will be in danger.

Written by Astro1 on October 18th, 2012 , Astronomy, Space Policy and Management

Following Felix Baumgartner’s record-setting skydive, Space Safety Magazine has published an article on how to survive supersonic freefall. The article is generally accurate, but unfortunately, it does perpetuate one of the myths about aerospace physiology:

At 18,900-19,350 meters, the point known as “Armstrong’s Line,” the pressure experienced is enough to make fluids within the body boil at 37 °C, the temperature of the human body.

This is not correct. Fluids in an open container will indeed boil at that temperature, above the Armstrong Line. The human body is not a closed container, however. It is enclosed by an elastic integument (skin), which prevents bodily fluids from boiling. Blood is additionally enclosed within the blood vessels. Saliva in the mouth will boil above the Armstrong line, but blood in the veins, arteries, and capillaries will not. Death from vacuum exposure will occur within minutes, but the cause of death will be hypoxia – lack of oxygen – not boiling blood.

Proof of this fact comes from laboratory experiments with animals and also from NASA astronauts who have suffered rips in their pressure suits during EVA, resulting in parts of their body being exposed to hard vacuum. The result was some local swelling and discomfort, but no boiling blood, just as physics predicts.

Written by Astro1 on October 17th, 2012 , Space Medicine and Safety

European astronomers have discovered a planet with about the mass of the Earth orbiting the second star in the Alpha Centauri system. It is the smallest exoplanet yet discovered around a star like the Sun. The planet was discovered using the 3.6-meter telescope at the European Southern Observatory’s La Silla Observatory in Chile.

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Written by Astro1 on October 16th, 2012 , Astronomy, Space Policy and Management


Written by Astro1 on October 16th, 2012 , Citizen Exploration

Congratulations go out to Felix Baumgartner (and the Red Bull Stratos team) for his record-setting high-altitude jump.


Baumgartner’s successful jump will help prepare the way for suborbital citizen space exploration. The Stratos team is not only testing out spacesuit technology, which will be extremely important for suborbital flights; it is also helping to set public expectations regarding risk, safety, and regulation of citizen space exploration.

To quote the Federal Aviation Administration, “[FAA regulation of skydiving] is based on the assumption that any individual who chooses to skydive has assessed the dangers involved and assumes personal responsibility for his or her safety. The regulations… are intended to assure the safety of those not involved in the sport, including persons and property on the surface and other users of the airspace. The skydiving community is encouraged to adopt good operating practices and programs to avoid further regulation by the FAA.”

This regulatory model is very close to the “informed consent” model for spaceflight participants created by the FAA Office of Commercial Space Transportation. Given the inherent risks and training requirements, spaceflight is more akin to skydiving than commercial airline travel. It will remain so for the foreseeable future. The informed consent model, therefore, is a good one. Unfortunately, it’s a model that many in the public and the space enthusiast community do not currently understand. Skydiving is an example we can point to in order to better inform the public.

The space community should also take note of the FAA’s admonition to the skydiving community. The freedom to fly does not come with out a price. We must self-regulate to ensure that best practices are followed for every aspect of operations, including equipment, maintenance, and training. If we fail to do so, we invite increased government regulation that may have negative consequences for the future of the industry.

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

The citizen-science project has reported the discovery of a new circumbinary exoplanet, designated Planet Hunters 1 (PH1).

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Written by Astro1 on October 15th, 2012 , Astronomy

The 1967 Outer Space Treaty explicitly states that space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies is “not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or any other means.” Today, some lawyers argue that clause (known as ”Article II”) prohibits private property as well. Yet, that is not the way the Treaty was interpreted at the time.

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Written by Astro1 on October 14th, 2012 , Space Policy and Management