Researchers at Purdue University have discovered a possible method of predicting solar flares more than a day before they occur.

Solar Flare

The prediction method works by measuring differences in gamma-radiation levels from the decay of radioactive materials. Scientists have long believed the rate of decay to be constant, but that view has been challenged by recent findings. A new hypothesis holds that radioactive decay rates are influenced by solar activity, possibly due to variations in solar neutrinos. The solar influence varies with seasonal changes in the Earth’s distance from the sun and is also affected by solar flares.

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Written by Astro1 on August 15th, 2012 , Innovation, Space Medicine and Safety

Dennis Wingo has posted an excellent article on nuclear power systems for lunar development.

One problem he fails to address is political opposition to launching nuclear materials into space. Public protests and legal challenges have been a headache for NASA programs like Cassini in the past. They could be a showstopper for commercial ventures in the future. The radioisotope thermoelectric generators, or RTGs, used by Cassini carry a small amount of nuclear fuel compared to the reactors which would be required to power a lunar base. So, it should be expected that environmentalist opposition to launching nuclear reactors would be even stronger.

Yet, that political problem could also represent an opportunity for lunar development.

Nuclear Thermal Rocket -- NASA concept

Nuclear power will be important for lunar bases, which need to operate throughout the two-week lunar night when solar power is not available, but it’s even more important for deep-space missions to the outer solar system. Human missions to Mars are feasible with chemical rockets, but just barely. If humans are to venture beyond Mars, nuclear rockets will be essential.

Launching the large reactors for nuclear thermal rockets (like the NASA concept shown here) will always be a political problem, as long as the reactors contain nuclear fuel. An obvious solution is to launch the reactors without reactor fuel onboard. The engines could then be fueled on orbit with nuclear material from extraterrestrial sources.

The logical source for that nuclear material is the Moon. The presence of uranium on the Moon was detected by the Japanese Kaguya space probe in 2009. Based on our discussions with engineers at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, mining uranium on the Moon is an interesting possibility.

If uranium mining on the Moon turns out to be feasible, it could be very important to lunar development. More important, perhaps, than platinum-group metals, which have received far more attention. Platinum-group metals are generally discussed in the context of terrestrial applications, such as fuel cells for electric cars. Although promising, the use of lunar materials for terrestrial applications faces serious challenges and competition from terrestrial sources and substitute materials. Mining uranium for use in space (or on the lunar surface) does not face the same stiff competition, especially if political factors make it impossible to launch nuclear materials from the surface of the Earth.

A more speculative use for lunar uranium might be fueling large nuclear reactors in Earth orbit that beam power back to Earth by microwave or laser beam. Orbiting power plants, while perhaps not cost-competitive with ground-based power, might become necessary if environmental opposition continues to block construction of new nuclear plants on Earth while global-warming concerns limit the use of fossil fuels.

More data on lunar uranium deposits is certainly warranted and should be a priority for future reconnaissance missions.

Water ice will likely be the first mineral to be economically extracted from the Moon (if current estimates of its availability are verified by future missions), but uranium might turn out to be more important in the long term. At some point, lunar ice deposits will start to diminish, and with a growing lunar population, it will no longer make economic sense to export water – a development anticipated by Robert Heinlein in his classic novel The Moon is a Harsh Mistress – but uranium deposits might last a lot longer. The Moon could serve as the nuclear fuel depot that provides the key to the solar system.

Written by Astro1 on August 15th, 2012 , Innovation, Space Exploration (General)

The Houston Chronicle reports that Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA) and Rep. John Culberson (R-TX) are working on a new budget bill that would give greater stability to the NASA budget. Their bill would create a 10-year appointed term for the NASA Administrator and a multiyear budget cycle for NASA.

This plan has been endorsed by Johnson Space Center director Michael Coats, who complains about NASA programs that have been canceled by budget shifts in the last seven years. Coats “notes that if they were able to plan out four or five years ‘it would be amazing what we could do with our team.’”

The Congressmen are addressing an old complaint from some pundits in the space-policy community. According to these commentators, NASA’s success is impeded by the electoral cycle, which brings changes to the makeup of Congress every two years and a new President every four to eight years. Each time, there are major changes or minor tweaks to space policy, which make it impossible for NASA to effectively pursue long-term projects.

This bill is troubling for two reasons. First, because it attempts to insulate NASA from political control and the electoral process. Making unelected government bureaucrats less accountable to the American people is never a good thing. Wolf and Culberson justify their action by pointing out that the Federal Bureau of Investigation enjoys similar protections. The problem with that analogy is that it’s not analogous. NASA is not a law-enforcement agency. It does not conduct legal investigations that may affect politicians and political interests, so the justification for long-term political autonomy does not apply.

Second, the bill fixes the wrong problem. What NASA needs is shorter planning cycles, not longer.

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Written by Astro1 on August 12th, 2012 , Innovation, Space Policy and Management

The Kessler Syndrome refers to a potential nightmare scenario for orbital debris. If the density of objects in Low Earth Orbit  becomes high enough, a single collision could trigger a runaway cascade of additional collisions. The result would be a density of debris that renders Low Earth Orbit unusable for an extended period of time.

The Kessler Syndrome is named after NASA scientist Donald Kessler, who first pointed out the danger back in 1978? In 2009, Kessler wrote a paper on the  significance of the Kessler Syndrome today.

In that paper, Kessler stated the following:

We are entering a new era of debris control…. an era that will be dominated by a slowly increasing number of random catastrophic collisions.   These collisions will continue in the 800 km to 1000 km altitude regions, but will eventually spread to other regions.  The control of future debris requires, at a minimum, that we not leave future payloads and rocket bodies in orbit after their useful life and might require that we plan launches to return some objects already in orbit. 

Emphasis is per the original.

This statement has interesting implications for future space launch. If the key to avoiding the Kessler effect is not leaving rocket components in orbit, the use of expendable launch vehicles  is contraindicated and should be replaced with reusable launch systems as soon as possible.

Written by Astro1 on August 2nd, 2012 , Commercial Space (General), Innovation

Ariel Waldman, founder of Science Hack Day and, spoke on “Hacking Space Exploration” at the 2011 Open Source Convention in Portland, Oregon.


We’re not religious adherents to open-source ideology. We believe that both open-source and closed-source projects have their place. We do believe, however, that the potential of open source has not been sufficiently exploited for space projects.

We’re offering experimenters the chance to fly 100 open-source payloads on XCOR’s Lynx. We hope to fly additional payloads on Lynx and other suborbital vehicles in the future. The reason why we want these payloads to be open source is so other people (both citizen scientists and professional researchers) can duplicate them in the future.

There are limits to how much money a citizen-science organization can raise, but if one of our experiments is successful and catches the attention of a professional research organization, it might be repeated hundreds of times. That would increase the demand for suborbital flights, increasing the flight rate and helping to drive down costs for all payload users (including us). We think that open source and citizen science can play a key role in helping to create a virtuous cycle of cost reduction.

We’ll confess, though – helping to drive down the cost of space access, while important, isn’t our only motive. We also think that space science can be fun, and we don’t think professional researchers should have a monopoly on fun.

Written by Astro1 on July 24th, 2012 , Citizen Science (General), Innovation

Buckner Hightower of Excalibur Almaz spoke at the Frontiers of Flight Museum on Saturday. His talk revealed some interesting details of Excalibur Almaz’s plans and current status.

Excalibur Almaz commercial lunar space station mission

Hightower said that Excalibur Almaz has completed all of its scheduled milestones under its unfunded Space Act Agreement with NASA’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Development program. As part of this work, the EADS Astrium consortium developed a service-module concept for the four Russian TKS capsules which Excalibur Almaz has purchased. Hightower said that Excalibur Almaz is prepared to step in and replace one of the primary CCDEV  partners, if unexpected difficulties arise, but EA’s primary focus is no longer on the International Space Station or Low Earth Orbit.

Excalibur Almaz is now focusing on cislunar flights. The company wants to place one of its two Salyut-class Almaz space stations in a halo orbit around the Earth-Moon L2 point, on the far side of the Moon. L2 would be the farthest human beings have ever ventured from the surface of the Earth.

The Almaz space station was originally designed as a military reconnaissance station, which could photograph the Earth and return photos with small ejectable reentry capsules. As a result, the Almaz space station has a 2-meter telescope which could be used to study the Moon and the ability to eject small landers to the lunar surface.

The station is designed for a crew of six, but Excalibur Almaz would reconfigure it for a crew of five. This configuration would allow for a three-week mission at L2.

Excalibur Almaz believes a mission to L2 could generate $900 million in revenues. That includes three seats which would be sold to sovereign government or private space explorers for $150 million apiece, delivery of satellites to L2 for $75 million apiece, delivery of small payloads to the lunar surface for $350 million apiece, and $32 million for naming rights.

Hightower believes Excalibur Almaz could perform its first L2 mission in about 30 months, after recapitalization.

It’s likely to take longer than that, in our view. Like SpaceX’s Red Dragon concept, this is a bold and exciting concept but may be a step too far at the present time. In our view, mankind needs to achieve a solid foothold in space by establishing reliable, routine, low-cost access before deep-space missions like this will still to pay off. That’s why we are focusing on suborbital missions. On the other hand, there’s no reason why both approaches can’t be pursued in parallel. Whether Excalibur Almaz succeeds or fails, it won’t harm the quest to develop low-cost reusable space vehicles and might help.

That is in marked contrast to the vision of space exploration advanced by the Lunar and Planetary Institute’s Dr. Paul Spudis, who continues to bash commercial spaceflight at every opportunity. Dr. Spudis was a member of the Aldridge Commission, which produced space-policy recommendations in support of the Bush Vision of Space Exploration. The Aldridge Commission’s final report proclaimed that human spaceflight would “remain the providence [sic] of government” for the foreseeable future. Incredibly, that report came out just a few week after Mike Melvill earned the first FAA Commercial Astronaut wings flying SpaceShip One. They say that hindsight is always 20/20 – except when it comes to government commissions, apparently. Dr. Spudis continues to exhibit the same short-sightedness today.


Written by Astro1 on July 23rd, 2012 , Excalibur Almaz, Innovation

Some independent thoughts about suborbital markets on the Fourth of July.


Tuesday night we watched the Kaboomtown fireworks show at Addison Airport. The ground-launch fireworks were impressive (it’s rated as one of the top five pyrotechnic displays in the United States, according the Travel Channel), but we noticed the greatest reaction at the start of the show, when fireworks were launched from a B-24 flying above the field.

At least, we believe it was the B-24. It was too dark to clearly discern the outlines of the aircraft, and there were no loudspeakers in our area to provide narration.

This led us to think about the possibility that someday, in the not too distant future, we might see fireworks launched from a suborbital spacecraft, and to muse on the form such a display might take.

The most practical display might not be actual fireworks at all. After all, fireworks explosions 50 miles up would be quite small as viewed from the ground, and there would be “boom” at all. Not very much fun. But in the past, scientists have used sounding rockets to create artificial auroras by releasing trimethyl aluminum into the upper atmosphere or exciting the upper atmosphere with electron beams. An artificial aurora might be an interesting complement to a ground-based fireworks show. Of course, the suborbital spacecraft could also launch fireworks on the way up or on the way down, while still close enough to the ground for an effective display.

Fireworks might seem like a frivolous use of suborbital spaceflight, and certainly no one would go to the expensive of developing a spacecraft for this purpose. But once suborbital spacecraft exist, operators will no doubt find all sorts of niche applications and customers like this.

Of course, this type of entertainment display requires a suborbital spacecraft that’s capable of launching and landing at night. The suborbital spacecraft now under development are designed for operation under daytime VFR conditions. There’s no point in adding the complexities of night-time and all-weather operation at this time. Once suborbital spacecraft are flying on a regular basis, though, it’s only a matter of time before someone decides to do the extra development of the avionics and procedures required for night operations. (There will be scientific payloads that want to fly at night as well.) Perhaps the NASA Flight Opportunities program, which has been funding enhancements to suborbital vehicles for scientific missions, will decide to take an interest at some point.

Written by Astro1 on July 4th, 2012 , Commercial Space (General), Innovation

A private foundation is taking another step to discover asteroids which pose a potential threat to Earth.

The B612 Foundation, founded by astronauts Rusty Schweickert and Ed Lu, has announced the Sentinel mission, a solar orbiting infrared telescope designed to discover and catalog 90 percent of the asteroids larger than 140 meters in Earth’s region of the solar system. The mission should also discover a significant number of smaller asteroids down to a diameter of 30 meters. Sentinel will be launched into what the B612 Foundation calls a Venus-like orbit, which significantly improves the efficiency of asteroid discovery during its 5.5 year mission.

[vimeo 44837633 w=700]

The Sentinel telescope is innovative in a number of ways. First, is that it will be the first privately financed mission to deep space. Second, it will be a smart spacecraft. Data will be processed onboard by asteroid-detection software. This minimizes the amount of data that needs to be downloaded back to Earth. Onboard processing will be important for future low-cost deep-space missions in order to reduce network operating costs. Instead of being in constant contact with Earth, Sentinel will report in once a week.

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Written by Astro1 on June 28th, 2012 , Innovation, Planetary Defense

The Apple iPhone, which was launched five years ago, has generated $150 billion in total revenue for Apple, according to a report by Strategiv Analytics as reported by

That figure may not surprise you. By now, most people are used to hearing superlatives about Apple’s iPhone business.

The success of the iPhone has been so spectacular that most people forget that it was not always assured. In fact, many business analysts did not believe Apple could succeed in the smartphone market. Microsoft President Steve Balmer famously declared, on stage at a public conference, that it was “impossible for Apple to get any significant market share.”

People were especially skeptical about the iPhone’s radical touchscreen design. Touchscreens existed long before the iPhone, but they simply didn’t work very well. The iPhone completely redefined what a smartphone could do, and what users expected from a smartphone.

That’s innovation, as practiced in Silicon Valley. Then we have human spaceflight, where innovation is almost a dirty word.

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Written by Astro1 on June 28th, 2012 , Innovation, Space Exploration (General)

Suborbital spacecraft may play an important role in training astronauts for orbital and deep-space missions.

Today, US astronauts (and their foreign counterparts) receive no training on rocket-powered vehicles prior to their first orbital flight. Whether they are pilots or payload operators, they are “thrown into the deep end of the pool” on their first space mission. Space agencies attempt to compensate, through extensive ground-based training and simulation, but the step up from ground-based training to actual flight is still enormous. Then, completing their mission, astronauts face a gap of many months or years before their next flight. Military and airline pilots have to meet regular “currency requirements,” but astronauts have no way to stay current in rocket-powered vehicles.

NASA has recognized the potential value of suborbital spacecraft for astronaut training. In 2008, NASA Administrator Mike Griffin said, “We could use commercial suborbital human transportation for early training and qualification of astronauts. If I could buy a seat to suborbital flight for a few hundred thousand dollars, why wouldn’t we have all of our new astros make their first flight in such a manner?” NASA never followed through on proposed studies of such training, however, perhaps because of budget overruns in other areas.

Commercial space companies are interested, however. XCOR Aerospace and Excalibur Almaz recently signed a memorandum of understanding that would open the door for XCOR to provide training for Excalibur Almaz astronauts using the Lynx spacecraft. If the idea catches on, suborbital spaceflight may become a standard part of the training toolkit for all future astronauts.

Such training could provide additional impetus for the development of a commercial spaceports near national space centers. It could be a particular boon to Texas. There has already been talk of establishing a suborbital spaceport at Ellington Airport, adjacent to NASA’s Johnson Space Center. Commercial suborbital spacecraft would be a useful supplement to the fleet of T-38 Talon jet trainers which NASA already has based at Ellington.

Excalibur Almaz Space Expeditions

Excalibur Almaz is marketing a commercial space capsule called the RRV, or Reusable Reentry Vehicle, based on the TKS capsule developed by the Soviet Union during the Cold War. The TKS capsule was intended for use with the Almaz (military Salyut) space station. It was tested in an unmanned configuration, but the Almaz program was cancelled before manned flights of the capsule were conducted.

Excalibur Almaz RRV (Reusable Reentry Vehicle) space capsule

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Written by Astro1 on June 27th, 2012 , Excalibur Almaz, Innovation, Space History, XCOR Aerospace

If there is an international space race (something we’re not at all certain of), the European Space Agency just made a strategic move to pass by approving construction of the Euclid space telescope.

Never mind the recent hype about China and thr first crewing of the Tiangong space station. Space races are mostly about public relations. Even Apollo was about PR. (You didn’t think landing Neil Armstrong on the Moon really affected the Cold War balance of power, did you?) The public doesn’t  care much about the International Space Station, and there’s no reason to think the China’s (smaller, less capable) space station will generate any long-term interest, either. Ask most people what NASA’s greatest accomplishment is, and they’re more likely to say “Hubble” than “ISS.”

Hubble will be retired in a few years, however, and NASA has no plans for a replacement. No, we’re not forgetting JWST. The James Webb Space Telescope has been billed as a replacement for Hubble, but it isn’t. JWST is an infrared telescope; it won’t produce the sort of visible-light images that made Hubble so immensely popular. Once JWST is in orbit and the public realizes that fact, buyer’s remorse is likely to set in. We’re not sure NASA though this one through.

NASA recently took delivery of two Hubble-class telescopes originally built for the National Reconnaissance Office. Unfortunately,  it can’t afford to launch either one of them due to JWST overruns and  “monster rocket” expenditures eating up the NASA budget.

So, ESA’s approval of the Euclid space telescope is a timely move. With a 576-megapixel visible camera and optical resolution comparable to Hubble, Euclid will be positioned to take over Hubble’s role as the public’s favorite telescope. In government space programs, image is everything, and there’s little doubt Euclid will produce stunning images.

Still, it’s a bit disappointing to see a government space agency investing a billion dollars in a conventional Hubble replacement instead of pioneering new technology like optical interferometry. To misquote an old saying, give a man a telescope, and he will observe for a day; develop the technology to build better, cheaper telescopes, and he will observe for the rest of all time.

That’s one of the reasons Planetary Resources’ planned Arkyd-100 telescope constellation is so interesting. A large of number of relatively modest, but low-cost, space telescopes could be a game changer. A recent blog post from the company suggests Arkyd-100 may give amateur and professional astronomers the chance to take a directed picture of an object of their choice for just $100, compared to over $10,000 for other space telescopes.

Written by Astro1 on June 21st, 2012 , Astronomy, Innovation, Planetary Resources

Ardusat is a project that will allow Arduino programmers to run their programs on satellite in space without actually having to build a satellite.

The Ardusat team is developing a CubeSat satellite with an Arduino payload. Arduino, for those who don’t know, is a popular open-source micro controller board. In addition to the Arduino board, the satellite will have an assortment of sensors including a camera, GPS, ozone and carbon-dioxide sensors, a geiger counter, thermometer, magnetometer, inertial measurement unit, and vibration, light, and pressure sensors.

When Ardusat is in orbit, programmers will be able to upload code to run on the Arduino board. There’s also an opportunity to propose additional sensors prior to launch.

The Ardusat team has created a Kickstarter project to help fund the project. They’re trying to raise $35,000. To pledge money to the project, go here.


Written by Astro1 on June 17th, 2012 , Electronics, Innovation, Nanosatellites

A homebrew computer hacker named Chris Fenton has built a working 1/10-scale Cray-1A computer replica which is binary-compatible and cycle-accurate to the original.

The project was hard because Chris not only wanted the replica to perform like the original, he wanted it to look like the original. He was also working on a budget and didn’t have many thousands of dollars to throw around. If you just want to run Cray code, there’s a DOS-based Cray emulator you can download.

The irony here is that the Cray was once promoted as “the machine that will change the world” while microcomputers like the Altair 8800 and Apple I were dismissed as toys. Yet, it was the microcomputer that changed the world, and now, the Cray computer has been (quite literally!) reduced to a toy.

Today, the “experts” in Congress tell was that the Space Launch System is the rocket that will save space exploration; suborbital rockets like SpaceShip Two, Lynx, and XAero are toys.

Those who fail to learn the lessons of history can still run for Congress.

Written by Astro1 on June 17th, 2012 , Electronics, Innovation, Space Exploration (General)

Wired has an article on an Apollo lunar orbit rescue concept from 1965.

The idea was to have a specially outfitted Apollo Command Service Module, with a single pilot, standing by on the launch pad. If something went wrong with the ship in lunar orbit, the rescue ship would be launched.

The problem with the concept is obvious. The crew in lunar orbit would likely run out of oxygen before the rescue ship arrived.  Because of that limitation, as well as the cost, the rescue project was never pursued. Apollo was left with no rescue capability in lunar orbit.

The Orion “Apollo on Steroids” architecture, pursued during the George W. Bush Administration, had the same safety vulnerabilities as Apollo, plus one additional failure mode. Instead of leaving a command module pilot in lunar orbit, the Orion architecture proposed to have all the astronauts descend to the surface, leaving the command module on autopilot for several weeks. At the end of their lunar stay, the astronauts would return to the Orion command service module and ask the computer to “open the pod bay doors,” as Arthur C. Clarke famously put it.

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Written by Astro1 on June 13th, 2012 , Innovation, Space Exploration (General), Space Medicine and Safety

A lot of people are scratching their heads trying to figure out the value, if any, of the two 2.4-meter  Hubble-class  telescopes recently donated to NASA by the National Reconnaissance Office.

As noted by Sky and Telescope, a Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope was one of the most important missions identified by the 2010 Astronomy and Astrophysics Decadal Survey. One or both of the NRO telescopes could fulfill that role.

Of course, a free telescope is like a free puppy. The telescopes currently lack both instrumentation and housekeeping, according to Sky and Telescope. And, of course, they require a ride to orbit.

These aren’t the only “free” telescopes to come out of the black world. There’s also a 120-inch (3-meter) Segmented Mirror Space Telescope which NRO donated to the Naval Postgraduate School.

What are the chances of NASA (or someone else) flying one of these telescopes?

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Written by Astro1 on June 8th, 2012 , Astronomy, Innovation

GE Garages are free workshops where aspiring builders of all levels can go to develop new skills and learn about modern manufacturing technologies. Developed by General Electric in cooperation with TechShop, Skillshare, Quirky, Make Magazine, and Inventables, GE Garages will facilitate the creation of one-off products, development of consumer products for mass consumption, and community participation in GE projects that address global or local challenges.

The GE Garage offers access to tools including a CNC mill, laser cutter, 3D printer, MIG welder, injection molder, cold saw, and ironworker.

A mobile pop-up Garage premiered at SXSW in Austin, later traveling to Houston, then to Maker Faire in San Mateo. Permanent GE Garages will open in Houston and San Francisco later this year.


Written by Astro1 on June 6th, 2012 , Citizen Science (General), Innovation

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

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

Brilliant Pebbles was a system of ballistic-missile interceptors proposed by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory as part of the Strategic Defense Initiative in the 1980’s. Brilliant Pebbles was a kinetic-energy interceptor. The name derives from the descriptive term of “smart rocks,” which was previously used to describe guided kinetic-energy weapons. Brilliant Pebbles took advantage of miniaturized electronics to make the interceptors much smarter, smaller, and cheaper to build – hence  “pebbles” rather than “rocks.”

Now, two researchers from the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, Scotland have suggested that smart pebbles might find a use against a different target, according to the New Scientist. At the Astrobiology Science Conference, held recently in Atlanta, Dr. Alison Gibbings and Dr. Massimiliano Vasile stated that a swarm of smart pebbles could be used to deflect an Earth-approaching asteroid.

According to Gibbings and Vasile, a 500-kilogram swarm of pebbles, each the size of a fingernail, could deflect the course of a 250-metre asteroid by almost 35,000 kilometers. The calculation assumes some advanced warning. The swarm would to hit the asteroid about eight years before the expected impact.

Dr. Vasile is also investigating the use of brilliant pebbles to remove space debris in Earth orbit.

Written by Astro1 on May 6th, 2012 , Innovation, Planetary Defense

…especially if you work for the government.

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Written by Astro1 on May 5th, 2012 , Citizen Science (General), Commercial Space (General), Innovation

3D printers work by laying down material, a process called additive manufacturing. Computer Numerically Controlled milling machines (CNC mills) work by removing material, which is subtractive manufacturing.

CNC mills aren’t quite as sexy as 3D printers, perhaps because the technology has been around a bit longer. Nevertheless, both technologies are useful and, indeed, complimentary.

A small company in Arkansas has recognized that fact and developed the first desktop manufacturing machine that does both addition and subtractive manufacturing. The Quintessential Universal Building Device, or QU-BD, will be introduced at Maker Faire in San Mateo.

Just one of the many wonders to be found at Maker Faire. See you there!


Written by Astro1 on May 3rd, 2012 , Events, Innovation

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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