NASA Origins Spectral Interpretation Resource Identification Security Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) asteroid sample return mission

The OSIRS-REx mission, developed by the University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, and Lockheed Martin Space Systems, is scheduled for launch in 2016.

This asteroid sample-return mission is interesting for a number of reasons. OSIRIS-REx stands for Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, and Security – Regolith Explorer. This marks the first time that resource prospecting and planetary defense have been prominently highlighted, along with science, as part of a NASA unmanned space mission. This should become the standsard model for all future missions.

Also interesting is the way OSIRIS-REx team members have tested their experiments in a low-gravity environment.

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Written by Astro1 on January 15th, 2013 , Planetary Defense, Space Policy and Management Tags:

Asteroid Mathilde from NASA Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous - Shoemaker

The European Space Agency is seeking research ideas to help guide development of a joint US-European asteroid deflection mission now under study.

The Asteroid Impact and Deflection Assessment (AIDA) mission would consist of two space probes, which would be launched toward a binary asteroid.

The Double Asteroid Redirection Test, or DART, would collide with the smaller of the two asteroids, while the Asteroid Impact Monitor (AIM) surveys the asteroids in detail, before and after the collision. DART is being designed by the Johns Hopkins Advanced Physics Laboratory in the US, with support from NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Johnson Space Center, and JPL. AIM is being designed by ESA.

The DART mission would also include ground-based observations to measure the deflection independently of AIM. This ensures that the DART impact would return return useful data even if AIM failed. Working together, the two probes would return data on momentum transfer and characteristics of the resulting crater.

ESA is seeking concepts for ground- and space-based investigations to improve understanding of high-speed collisions between man-made and natural objects in space.

The AIDA design study is a successor to the Don Quijote study, which ESA completed in July 2005. Like AIDA, Don Quijote involved two probes: an orbiter called Sancho and an impactor called Hidalgo. Sancho would arrive at the asteroid several months prior to Hidalgo to accurately measure the body’s position, shape, mass, and gravity field.

Don Quijote differed from AIDA in planning to target a single asteroid, of about 500 meters diameter, rather than a binary asteroid. Construction of the Don Quixote probes could have begun in 2006, if the project had been approved. Unfortunately, that did not happen. We hope AIDA will have better luck.


Written by Astro1 on January 15th, 2013 , Planetary Defense


This commercial is deliberately over the top, in a hilarious sort of way. Nevertheless, its tag line is a message NASA (and its political masters) ought to keep in mind.

NASA has been quietly downsizing the astronaut office, and actual flight opportunities have been downsized greatly. The expensive Orion capsule and Space Launch System won’t help the flight rate any. If this trend continues, it will become a problem for NASA. At some point, taxpayers will start to ask why they are spending so much money on a space agency that’s sending almost no one into space.

Whenever these facts are mentioned, NASA responds by pointing out how much progress is being made in the unmanned space-science side. (The Curiosity rover is the current poster boy for this.)

It’s true that NASA’s unmanned programs have been doing better, but robots don’t vote and robots don’t pay taxes. The people who do want (and deserve) more than that.

As Scott Glenn, playing Alan Shepard, said in The Right Stuff, “You see those people out there? They all want to see Buck Rogers, and that’s us.”

Nobody throws a ticker-tape parade for robots.

And nothing beats an astronaut.

Written by Astro1 on January 13th, 2013 , Space Exploration (General), Space Policy and Management

NASA Copernicus MTV nuclear-rocket deep-space exploration ship

There’s a petition on the White House website calling for the United States to rapidly develop a nuclear thermal rocket engine.

Technically, nuclear thermal rockets are a promising technology, but unless NASA develops a deep-space ship to put it on (like the Copernicus MTV, shown here, or the Nautilus X), a nuclear rocket engine would be wasted.

There is little chance of a commercial outfit working through all the red tape needed to launch a nuclear rocket engine into orbit. (It’s questionable whether the government could do that itself.)

We’ve discussed this problem with engineers at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, and all of us came to the same conclusion: the best hope for nuclear rocket engines is finding uranium or thorium on the Moon. That would solve the political/environmental problem by allowing nuclear reactors to be launched from Earth unfueled. It would also jump start the development of lunar industry.

Mining nuclear fuel on the Moon has an advantage over other lunar mining schemes, such as platinum group metal (PGM) mining. Those proposals work only if mining on the Moon is cheaper than mining on Earth. That is possible but not yet proven. The bar for mining nuclear material on the Moon is much lower, if environmental politics does not allow us to launch it from Earth.

Written by Astro1 on January 12th, 2013 , Space Exploration (General), Space Policy and Management

SpaceX has released a new video with some dramatic views of its Grasshopper reusable first-stage test vehicle during the 12-story test flight on December 17.


Written by Astro1 on January 12th, 2013 , SpaceX

asteroids and comets visited by unmanned space probes

This rogues gallery shows the relative size of the asteroids and comets that have been visited by unmanned space probes, courtesy of Emily Lakdawalla of the Planetary Society.

We look forward to the day when we can show a similar picture of all asteroids visited by manned spacecraft.

That seems like a tall order, but remember — none of unmanned missions existed just a few years ago.

We can rebuild the space program. We have the technology. Johnson Space Center has done advanced concept studies of a deep space ship, Nautilus X, that could be built within the agency’s current budget. Instead, NASA spends its money on the politically mandated Space Launch System and Orion capsule, which duplicate capabilities already available (or soon to be available) from companies like SpaceX and United Launch Alliance.

Why should we be interested in the asteroids, when there are more alluring destinations like Mars? Well, it wasn’t Mars that killed the dinosaurs. We’re reminded of a (possibly apocryphal) quote from Leon Trotsky: “You may not be interested in war, comrade, but war is interested in you!”

Written by Astro1 on January 12th, 2013 , Planetary Defense

AXE plans to do training for its citizen astronauts in Orlando, Florida. They’ve started running this commercial to give contest applicants a taste of what’s in store.

It appears that AXE’s advertising department needs a good technical editor, though. The L-39 Albatros is strictly a subsonic airplane.

The space camp, called the Axe Apollo Space Academy, will take place in December of 2013, according to a press release from XCOR Aerospace. 100 finalists will take part, competing for a chance to win one of 21 flights. (The 22nd flight will be awarded early this year, in a drawing to take place after the Super Bowl on February 3.


Written by Astro1 on January 11th, 2013 , Citizen Exploration, XCOR Aerospace

A cool video from the Near Earth Object Program Office at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.


Unfortunately, the deflection technology, which they mention at the end, is not even in development. Protecting the Earth’s population from a possible global extinction event is not a goal whose value penetrates to politicians and wonks in DC.

Washington’s blindness to the asteroid threat can be seen in a recent report by the National Academy of Sciences, NASA’s Strategic Direction and the Need for a National Consensus. The report dismisses the value of NASA’s proposed asteroid mission with the following statement:

The committee has seen little evidence that a current stated goal for NASA’s human spaceflight program — namely, to visit an asteroid by 2015 — has been widely accepted as a compelling destination by NASA’s own workforce, by the nation as a whole, or by the international community. Although asteroids remain important subjects for both US and international robotic exploration and study, on the international front, there appears to be continued enthusiasm for a mission to the Moon but not for an asteroid mission.

This statement is deeply flawed. NASA works for the American people, not its own workforce or the international community — and if the committee saw little evidence that the Americans find asteroids compelling, it simply wasn’t looking. Bookstores, documentaries, and Hollywood movies attest to widespread public interest in the asteroid-impact hazard.

Obviously, the NAS committee failed to make the connection between NASA’s manned asteroid mission and planetary defense. The committee implicitly assumes that asteroids are merely subjects of scientific study rather than natural hazards of potential resources. That is a common failing in the scientific community — and one reason why the NAS is the wrong organization to ask for recommendations on space policy. Of course, President Obama and NASA Administrator Major General Charles Bolden have failed to publicly make the connection as well. There is plenty of blame to go around here.

It is becoming increasingly obvious that the future of human spaceflight — and perhaps the future of the human race — will depend on people outside of Washington, DC.

Written by Astro1 on January 9th, 2013 , Planetary Defense

Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin joined AXE, a personal-grooming brand of Unilever, to announce one of the largest spaceflight contests ever. The Apollo Space Sweepstakes, also known as the AXE Apollo Space Academy, is a worldwide contest that will select 22 citizen astronauts to fly into space on the XCOR Lynx spacecraft.

“Space travel for everyone is the next frontier in the human experience,” said Aldrin, lunar-module pilot for the historic Apollo 11 mission. “I’m thrilled that AXE is giving the young people of today such an extraordinary opportunity to experience some of what I’ve encountered in space.”

[vimeo 57152173 w=700]

AXE, which is known as LYNX in some parts of the world, secured 22 seats aboard the namesake spacecraft through Space Expedition Corporation.

AXE global vice president Tomas Marcenaro said, “The AXE Apollo launch is the biggest and most ambitious in the AXE brand’s 30 year history. For the first time, we’re simultaneously launching one global competition in over 60 countries offering millions of people the opportunity to win the most epic prize on earth: a trip to space Yes, actual space.”

“There’s no bigger hero than an astronaut,” AXE said, “so AXE is giving fans a chance to experience an adventure unlike any other.”

Astronaut candidates can sign up between now and February 3 at Contest rules and terms vary from country to country.

Written by Astro1 on January 9th, 2013 , Citizen Exploration, XCOR Aerospace

A new version of the Virgin Galactic Payload Users Guide has been released. It is available for download at

The document contains no ITAR-restricted information.

Virgin Galactic SpaceShip Two flight profile

Written by Astro1 on January 8th, 2013 , Virgin Galactic

NASA has signed a $17.8 million contract with Bigelow Aerospace for a new ISS module.

Update: See new details here.

The Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) could be delivered to the International Space Station within 24 months by a SpaceX Falcon 9 or Orbital Sciences Antares rocket. BEAM would provide ISS astronauts with extra storage space while providing data on the performance of inflatable modules in the space environment.

Bigelow has been doing unfunded studies for several years. These pictures are from a NASA presentation back in 2010.

Bigelow Aerospace inflatable module for International Space Station -- External view

Bigelow Aerospace inflatable module for International Space Station -- internal view

Written by Astro1 on January 8th, 2013 , Bigelow Aerospace

One of the most promising scientific applications for reusable suborbital spacecraft is the study of the upper atmosphere. In recent years, atmospheric researchers have discovered a wide range of electrical phenomena that we previously unsuspected. These have been given exotic names like red sprites, blue jets, blue starters, ELVEs, halos, trolls, and gnomes. There may be others we have not yet discovered. We will learn a lot more when we have an affordable way to access the “ignore-osphere” on a reliable, repeatable basis.

One of the latest additions to this electrical menagerie: NASA has discovered dark lightning.


Written by Astro1 on January 8th, 2013 , Atmospheric Science

Today at the 221st American Astronomical Society meeting, the NASA Kepler space-telescope team announced 461 new planet candidates. The total number of planet candidates identified by Kepler now totals 2,740, including 351 Earth-sized candidates:

NASA Kepler space telescope mission exoplanet candidates

Four of the potential new planets are less than twice the size of Earth and orbit in their sun’s habitable zone, where liquid water might exist on the surface of a planet.

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Written by Astro1 on January 7th, 2013 , Astronomy

Due to the growing interest in low-cost interplanetary missions, an Interplanetary Small Satellite Conference has been announced. NASA Chief Technologist Dr. Mason Peck will be featured speaker at the conference, which takes place at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena on June 20-21.

Small satellites are typically defined as those weighing less than 500 kilograms, but conference organizers strongly encourage submitters to focus on satellites under 50 kilograms. Abstract submission is now open now and registration will open soon.

Meanwhile, the Second Interplanetary CubeSat Workshop is still scheduled to take place in Ithaca, NY, on or near the Cornell University campus, on May 28-29. Earlier reports that the Interplanetary Small Satellite Conference replaced the workshop were incorrect.

Written by Astro1 on January 7th, 2013 , Nanosatellites

Planet Hunters has reported a second confirmed exoplanet discovery, along with 42 additional candidates and possible candidates.

Planet Hunters is an online project that allows citizen scientists to help find exoplanets in archived data from NASA’s Kepler space telescope. The new discovery, designated PH2-b, is a Jupiter-sized planet in the habitable zone of a Sun-like star. A paper on the discovery has been submitted to the Astrophysical Journal and made available to the public at

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Written by Astro1 on January 6th, 2013 , Astronomy

The Guardian reports that Great Britain has a new national hobby: amateur astronomy.

Membership and interest in astronomy and science clubs are said to be surging due to a popular BBC television program, Stargazing Live. Hosted by standup comic Dara Ó Briain (who also hosts Dara Ó Briain’s Science Club) and particle physicist Professor Brian Cox from the University of Manchester, the show attracts millions of viewers each week. It is now returning for its third year.


Stargazing Live is credited with saving the British General Certificate of Secondary Education in Astronomy from the scrap heap, as well as locating an undiscovered exoplanet during a live broadcast.

The show’s interest seems to parallel that of Cosmos, hosted by Dr. Carl Sagan, which was a popular phenomenon in the United States in the 1980’s. Cox has created Sagan’s Cosmos as being one of the major influences in his life. But unlike Sagan, who was dismissive of human spaceflight for most of his life, Cox and Ó Briain show an interest in doing more than just looking at space. On one episode, the hosts chatted live with the crew of the International Space Station. Another episode featured Apollo astronaut Gene Cernan talking about the Moon. According to Wikipedia, Cox gave his son George the middle name of “Eagle” after the Apollo 11 lunar module.

Stargazing Live once again disproves the myth that the public isn’t interested in space. Furthermore, this phenomenon is happening in Great Britain, which is often criticized for not having a manned space program. (It is frequently said that there has never been a British astronaut. For some reason, Dr. Helen Sharman doesn’t count.)

Stargazing Live also differs from Cosmos in one other respect. It urges viewers to go out and participate in amateur astronomy with their own hands and eyes. This message is well timed to fit in with the growing interest in citizen science.

Perhaps the Discovery Channel will take notice and produce similar shows for the United States. We’re getting really tired of lumberjacks, crab fishermen, and tattooed guys building motorcycles.

Written by Astro1 on January 6th, 2013 , Astronomy

50 years of progress in NASA computing systems:

50 years of progress in NASA computer systems

50 Years of progress in NACA/NASA aviation research:

50 years of progress in aviation

50 years of progress in NASA spaceflight:

50 years of NASA spaceflight

It’s sad that there has been so little progress in human spaceflight compared to other fields.

This tragedy will continue as long as Congress forces NASA to continue working on Orion and SLS, instead of building something new like Johnson Space Center’s Nautilus X.

Written by Astro1 on January 6th, 2013 , Space History

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev has announced that his nation will increase space spending to 2.1 trillion rubles (about $70 billion) for 2013-2020.

There is no need to panic about the Return of the Red Menace, however. Russian officials and politicians are fond of making promises about future space programs, which have rarely been realized in recent years. Statements about future plans are often made for PR purposes.

Even if Russian politicians follow through with their promises this time, it won’t exactly shift the balance of space power. NASA still spends more than all of the world’s civil government space agencies combined. If the United States cannot stay in the lead, then NASA (and its political masters) are doing something wrong.

Vladimir Aleksandrovich Popovkin, director general of the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos) says, “By 2015, we shall restore the capabilities we had back in the Soviet era.” The Soviet era ended in 1991. Restoring the Russian space program to where it was 21 years ago hardly seems likely an ambitious goal. Of course, US politicians still talk about quixotic plans to take NASA back to the 1960’s, with Apollo-era systems, architectures, and technologies.

Meanwhile, the US commercial space sector is on the verge of a breakthrough in routine, low-cost space transportation that will bring about the dawn of the true Space Age.

Written by Astro1 on January 5th, 2013 , Space Policy and Management

NASA recently revealed details of the recovery concept for its Orion space capsule. The concept shows how much has changed, and not changed, since the 1960’s.

A NASA artist’s conception shows the Orion capsule being recovered by a US Navy Landing Platform Dock (LPD) ship. This shows the diminished importance of NASA’s exploration program to overall US strategic policy. In the 1960’s, the United States Navy detailed an entire carrier battle group to recover an Apollo capsule, but now all it can spare is an LPD.

NASA Orion space capsule recovery by US Navy LPD (artist's concept)

Not that an LPD is exactly cheap, but Orion is not designed to be cheap. The annual development cost for Orion is more than the expected total development cost for the SpaceX Dragon capsule, which will provide similar capabilities (including the ability the conduct lunar and Mars missions, according to Space). Of course, this isn’t NASA’s fault  — the US Congress insisted that NASA continue development of the pointlessly redundant Orion capsule, which has consumed scarce resources that could have been used to jump-start development of deep-space exploration systems such as Johnson Space Center’s Nautilus X.

Any Navy veteran will tell you that search, rescue, and recovery operations at sea are never easy, or cheap. SpaceX is currently recovering its Dragon capsules at sea but is developing plans for land recovery in the future. Meanwhile, companies like Sierra Nevada, XCOR Aerospace, and Virgin Galactic are developing vehicles that can touch down on a runway like conventional aircraft. In the future, astronauts will not be rescued from outer space, they will fly back in style — but not, apparently, if the United States Congress has anything to say about it.

Still, NASA PR writer Bob Granath is spinning this archaic recovery mode as a technological breakthrough:
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Written by Astro1 on January 5th, 2013 , Space Exploration (General)

The following is a minor update of a white paper we prepared for the National Academy of Science’s Decadal Survey on Biological and Physical Sciences in Space back in 2010. Most of our original recommendations are still relevant today, although we don’t see much hope of a rational outcome for the International Space Station.
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Written by Astro1 on January 5th, 2013 , Citizen Science (General), Commercial Space (General)

Aviation Week reports that Raytheon has received a $1.5-million, nine-month contract to begin designing a small imaging satellite under the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency’s Space Enabled Effects for Military Engagements (SeeMe) project.

SeeMe intends to demonstrate a 24-satellite constellation that can provide rapid tactical intelligence to the warfighter. The SeeMe satellite would provide 1-meter resolution images on demand to handheld terminals in the field.


DARPA specified that each SeeMe should weigh less than 100 pounds. Raytheon’s concept is substantially lighter at 44 pounds. Another goal is affordable, on-demand production. DARPA wants to the manufacturer to be able to deliver a satellite within 90 days of initial order, for no more than $500,000.

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Written by Astro1 on January 3rd, 2013 , Military Space, Nanosatellites


The Golden Spike Company has announced that Northrop Grumman will conduct a lunar-lander design study as part of Golden Spike’s “head start” commercial lunar architecture.

During the study, Northrop Grumman will explore a variety of lunar-lander options including staging options, propellants, engines, reusability, autonomy, exploration-system capabilities, and landing sites.

Golden Spike engineering chief James French said the study is one of a number of initial studies which Golden Spike will undertake to begin creating design requirements and specifications for a lunar-lander contract competition.

Golden Spike previously announced United Launch Alliance, Armadillo Aerospace, and Masten Space Systems as members of its lunar-lander team. Northrop Grumman brings additional resources to the table.

Golden Spike chairman Gerry Griffin said, “Northrop Grumman brings a unique body of knowledge and skills as the only company to ever build a successful human-rated lunar lander, the Apollo Lunar Module.” Golden Spike president Dr. Alan Stern said, “We’re very proud to be working with Northrop Grumman, which has the most experience and successful performance record for human lunar lander designs in the world.”

From a technical perspective, the significance of Northrop Grumman’s Apollo lunar-module experience is limited. There are few, if any, members of the Grumman lunar-module team who are still active. From a marketing perspective, however, it still has power.

Northrop Grumman kept its association with lunar landers alive in the public eye when it became the name sponsor for the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge in 2007 — in retrospect, a smart marketing move. We hope that other large aerospace companies will take notice and decide to sponsor similar prize competitions in the future.

Written by Astro1 on January 3rd, 2013 , Citizen Exploration, Commercial Space (General)

The NASA Flight Opportunities Program, which provides funding to fly technology payloads on suborbital spacecraft and other platforms, may be in danger.

Sources tell us that Congress is unhappy with the current direction of the Flight Opportunities Program, which has been a political football since its inception.


The Flight Opportunities Program was created by the merger of two previous NASA programs: Facilitated Access to Space Technology (FAST), which provided flights for experiments on microgravity research aircraft, and Commercial Reusable Suborbital Research (CRusR).

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Written by Astro1 on January 2nd, 2013 , Commercial Space (General), Space Policy and Management