Archive for Outer Space

How NASA crews could sleep for 6 months on the journey to Mars

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NASA studying humans rocketing to Mars in a deep sleep

Existing medical techniques are laying the foundations for an ambitious researchproject to send astronauts into a deep sleep on a six-month journey to Mars, according to the engineer leading the study.

“There’s technology being used in the medical community that could support this – there’s a wealth of data out there to support it,” John Bradford, president of Atlanta-based SpaceWorks, told FoxNews.com. “It’s a big step, but it could be adopted for space flight.”

The NASA-funded study began 12 months ago, and conjures up images of science fiction – putting astronauts into a deep sleep, or torpor, during the long six-month journey to Mars.

“I don’t think that we could go to Mars without something like this technology,” Bradford said. Putting the crew into a deep sleep, he explained, would significantly reduce the amount of supplies and infrastructure needed to support the long space journey, from food to onboard living space.

The study predicts that putting a spacecraft’s crew into torpor, or stasis state, would cut the mission requirements from 400 tons to 220 tons of equipment and supplies.

Bradford told FoxNews.com that the torpor could be achieved by a technique called therapeutic hypothermia, which is already used in hospitals, albeit for a much shorter time period.

Therapeutic, or protective, hypothermia lowers a patient’s body temperature to reduce the risk of tissue injury following, say, a cardiac arrest when blood flow is limited.

In the thermal management system envisaged by SpaceWorks, a tube inserted into an astronaut’s nasal cavity will emit a cooled gas, lowering their temperature by about 10 degrees.  Low-dose drugs will also be administered to suppress their shiver reflex and ease their passage into a deep sleep.

“Other than the duration, the procedural aspects of this are pretty benign,” said Bradford.

Technologies are already commercially available in this area, such as the RhinoChill IntraNasal cooling system, which is used to induce therapeutic hypothermia after cardiac arrest.

However, SpaceWorks acknowledges that there’s a lot more research needed before someone is placed in a six-month sleep. Up to now, the longest torpor induced by therapeutic hypothermia is 14 days, according to Bradford.

The engineer told FoxNews.com that, while the research aims to wake astronauts just once, at the end of their journey, other sleep durations may be used. The crew, he explained, could sleep in shifts, with each astronaut in torpor for about two weeks and then conscious for two days, ensuring that one crew member is always awake during the mission.

While in stasis state, astronauts would be fed intravenously with an aqueous solution of carbohydrates, amino acids, dextrose, and lipids, according to Bradford. “They would not have any solid waste – it would be strictly urine,” he said, noting that a catheter would be used to dispose of the liquid.

The medical industry is also developing technologies such as infection-resistant IV lines that could prove useful during the flight to Mars, Bradford said.

The crew could be brought out of their torpor by turning off the cooling gas and shivering suppressant. “Nominally, it would take about two hours to wake somebody,” said the SpaceWorks president. “It would probably take a couple of days [for the astronauts] to get [fully] acclimated – our testing will include cognitive tests to examine their mental faculties when they wake up.”

Bradford estimates that a typical Mars mission will involve a six month journey, followed by a year and a half on the red planet, and a six month journey back to earth.

While NASA has successfully completed unmanned missions to Mars, such as the Curiosity rover, putting humans on the planet is a much more challenging endeavor. NASA, for example, has a 2035 target for landing humans on Mars, although SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has predicted that people could be on Mars within 10 to 12 years.

SpaceWorks’ Bradford expects to see human Mars missions in 20 years, noting that the deep sleep research project is still in its infancy.

“There’s a ways to go,” he told FoxNews.com. “We have concluded the phase one effort, which is developing the initial design, the engineering details, and medical plausibility – we’re now looking at the next steps, which will be continued studies of the engineering challenges.”

Black hole gas guzzler may explain weird superbright X-rays

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This image shows the galaxy NGC 7793 about 12 million light-years from Earth. The galaxy is home to the voracious black hole P13, which is easily seen as the brightest blue source near the bottom of the image. (X-ray (NASA/CXC/Univ of Strasbourg/M. Pakull et al); Optical (ESO/VLT/Univ of Strasbourg/M. Pakull et al); H-alpha (NOAO/AURA/NSF/CTIO 1.5m))

A black hole is eating a star faster than scientists had thought was possible, and it’s unleashing unusually bright X-ray signals that may help scientists understand a group of weird, superbright objects in deep space.

The discovery helps shed light on the origin of so-called ultraluminous X-ray sources, and also suggests that black holes can grow faster than previously thought, researchers say.

In the late 1970s, astronomers discovered sources of unusually bright X-rays blazing in deep space. It was long uncertain what these ultraluminous X-ray sources were. Scientists thought black holes powered these mysteries, with the matter around them giving off light as the black holes ripped it apart, but they disagreed about what the black holes’ masses might be. [The Strangest Black Holes in Space]

Black hole (former) sun

Most black holes are created during the violent deaths of giant stars. These stellar-mass black holes weigh about three to 100 times the mass of the sun. On the other end of the size range are supermassive black holes that are millions to billions of times the mass of the sun,and lurk in the centers of galaxies.

Ultraluminous X-ray sources have a brightness in between that of stellar-mass and supermassive black holes. As such, researchers suggested that these ultraluminous X-ray sources might involve intermediate-mass black holes that are hundreds to thousands of times the mass of the sun.

However, scientists have now identified one ultraluminous X-ray source, and it turns out not to be an intermediate-mass black hole, but rather an unusually bright stellar-mass black hole no more than 15 times the mass of the sun.

“Black holes with relatively modest masses may find ways to radiate huge X-ray luminosities,” lead study author Christian Motch, an astronomer at the University of Strasbourg in France, told Space.com.

Small black hole, fast eater

The discovery in question is a black hole labeled P13 in the outskirts of the nearby spiral galaxy NGC 7793, about 12 million light-years away. This black hole, by far the brightest X-ray source in its galaxy, was discovered more than 30 years ago by NASA’s Einstein X-ray telescope.

The black hole possesses a companion star, a kind of blue supergiant 18 to 23 times the mass of the sun. As gas from this companion gets sucked into P13, this matter becomes very hot and bright, making the black hole at least a million times brighter than the sun.

The astronomers gazed at the black hole and its companion with a combination of optical and X-ray telescopes over the course of eight years — the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope in Chile, as well as the European Space Agency’s XMM-Newton and NASA’s Chandra and Swift X-ray observatories in space. The researchers determined that the black hole and its companion star complete a very oval-shaped orbit around each other every 64 days.

When the black hole approaches the star, the X-rays from it heat up and brighten the side of the star facing the black hole. By carefully modeling this effect, the astronomers were able to estimate the black hole’s mass.

Voracious appetite

The amount of light the black hole gives off suggests it gorges on gas at an exceptional rate — the equivalent of the mass of the moon every three weeks, or the mass of Earth every four years. This is significantly greater than a theoretical maximum known as the Eddington limit, which is the point at which the energy given off by matter rushing toward a black hole should curb the amount of matter feeding that black hole.

Increasingly, research suggests black holes can overcome the Eddington limit. These so-called super-Eddington growth rates could have a number of different explanations — for instance, radiation that might normally help push matter away from the black hole could get absorbed by matter falling into the black hole, Motch said.

These new findings suggest that stellar-mass black holes growing at super-Eddington rates could help explain “a majority of ultraluminous sources,” Motch said. However, some ultraluminous X-ray sources are too bright to be stellar-mass black holes, even assuming super-Eddington rates of growth, or the wavelengths of X-rays they give off are consistent with growth rates below the Eddington limit. These other ultraluminous X-ray sources “may be powered by high-mass stellar black holes up to 100 solar masses, or by intermediate-mass black holes,” Motch said.

Second total lunar eclipse of year coming up Wednesday, North America gets prime viewing

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FILE – In this Tuesday, April 15, 2014, file photo, the moon turns an orange hue during a total lunar eclipse in the sky above Phoenix. On Wednesday morning, Oct. 8, 2014, North Americans will have prime viewing of a full lunar eclipse, especially in the West. The total eclipse will last an hour, until sunrise on the East Coast. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, File) (The Associated Press)

If you missed April’s total eclipse of the moon, now’s your chance. But you’ll need to get up early.

Wednesday morning, if the skies are clear, North Americans will have prime viewing of a full lunar eclipse, especially in the West. The full moon will be obscured by Earth’s shadow in the predawn hours. The total eclipse will last an hour — until sunrise on the East Coast.

It also will be visible across Australia and much of Asia. Only Europe, Africa and the eastern tip of Brazil won’t get the show.

The moon will appear orange or red, the result of sunlight scattering off Earth’s atmosphere. That’s why it’s called a blood moon.

There’ll be two full lunar eclipses again next year.

NASA eyes crew deep sleep option for Mars mission

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    Artwork by Mark Elwood (SpaceWorks Enterprises, Inc.)

A NASA-backed study explores an innovative way to dramatically cut the cost of a human expedition to Mars — put the crew in stasis.

The deep sleep, called torpor, would reduce astronauts’ metabolic functions with existing medical procedures. Torpor also can occur naturally in cases of hypothermia.

“Therapeutic torpor has been around in theory since the 1980s and really since 2003 has been a staple for critical care trauma patients in hospitals,” aerospace engineer Mark Schaffer, with SpaceWorks Enterprises in Atlanta, said at the International Astronomical Congress in Toronto last week. “Protocols exist in most major medical centers for inducing therapeutic hypothermia on patients to essentially keep them alive until they can get the kind of treatment that they need.”

Coupled with intravenous feeding, a crew could be put in hibernation for the transit time to Mars, which under the best-case scenario would take 180 days one-way.

So far, the duration of a patient’s time in torpor state has been limited to about one week.

“We haven’t had the need to keep someone in (therapeutic torpor) for longer than seven days,” Schaffer said. “For human Mars missions, we need to push that to 90 days, 180 days. Those are the types of mission flight times we’re talking about.”

Economically, the payoff looks impressive. Crews can live inside smaller ships with fewer amenities like galleys, exercise gear and of course water, food and clothing. One design includes a spinning habitat to provide a low-gravity environment to help offset bone and muscle loss.

SpaceWorks’ study, which was funded by NASA, shows a five-fold reduction in the amount of pressurized volume need for a hibernating crew and a three-fold reduction in the total amount of mass required, including consumables like food and water.

Overall, putting a crew in stasis cuts the baseline mission requirements from about 400 tons to about 220 tons.

“That’s more than one heavy-lift launch vehicle,” Schaffer said

Experts: Cheap Mars mission could prove lucrative for India

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This image provided by the Indian Government Press Information Bureau shows what the agency says is one of the first images of the surface of Mars taken by India’s Mars Orbiter Mission satellite, on Thursday, Sept. 25, 2014. (AP Photo/Press Information Bureau)

India’s successful, low-cost Mars mission is a major milestone for the country’s space program, with experts predicting that it could open the door to lucrative space deals with the U.S. and Europe.

India joined the select group of space nations on Wednesday when the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) successfully placed a satellite into orbit around Mars. Speaking at the ISRO headquarters in Bangalore, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi lauded the orbit as a historic occasion for the country.

Experts agree that the Mars satellite is of huge technological and political importance.

“This mission is very significant,” Chris Carberry, executive director of  Explore Mars, a non-profit organization which aims to advance the goal of sending humans to Mars within the next two decades. “Mars is a very challenging destination,” he added, noting that, up until now, only the U.S., the European Space Agency, and Russia have executed successful Mars missions.

Scott Hubbard, consulting professor for aeronautics and astronautics at Stanford University, described the mission as a “major badge of accomplishment” for the country of around 1.2 billion people. “India has gone to Mars – China has not!” he told FoxNews.com.

India’s mission is even more impressive given its modest price tag of $76 million, significantly less than NASA’s $671 million Maven spacecraft, which recently entered Mars orbit. Media reports have also noted that MOM cost less than the $100 million Hollywood spent to produce the movie “Gravity.”

This week’s success should also be viewed within the context of India’s thriving technology and telecommunications industry, according to Roger Franzen, technical manager of the Giant Magellan Telescope at the Australian National University’s Mount Stromlo Observatory just outside Canberra.

“For more than two decades, India has been developing a space industry because it saw the economic and technological benefits of such a hi-technology industry stimulus,” he told FoxNews.com. “India has already launched its own communications and earth observation satellites using its own rockets from its own soil – the step up to a semi-autonomous deep space planetary mission further demonstrates India’s technological maturity.”

The Mars Orbiter Mission, known as MOM, will circle the red planet for at least six months while its instruments gather scientific data.

“It is possible that European and American companies (depending on regulatory restrictions) could approach India in the future, particularly if they can show that they are able to continue to launch inexpensively and reliably,” said Carberry. The expert, however, noted growing competition in the U.S. launch market with the emergence of commercial companies such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX.

Earlier this month, NASA awarded its highly-anticipated space taxi contract to U.S. firms Boeing and SpaceX, a move which will end the agency’s reliance on Russian technology to transport U.S. astronauts to the International Space Station.

Nonetheless, the growing cost of individual missions is already driving more international space collaboration, according to Franzen.

“European and some U.S. companies are already buying space components from India and using India’s range of space launch facilities to reach orbit,” he added. “The success of MOM means that India must be considered as both a supplier to and a potential collaborator on other larger space missions including planetary and lunar aspirations.”

Stanford’s Hubbard also acknowledged that American and European companies could look to India for the likes of satellite launches and other space-related projects, but said that careful attention should be paid to the potential cost benefits.  “I would need to be convinced that the savings are real and not the result of differences in accounting,” he said. “Also the rigor of the test and qualification program would need significant scrutiny – if they can deliver a quality product on schedule and on budget they can compete like everyone else.”

Elevator into space: Japanese firm determined to proceed with bold engineering project

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A galaxy known as NGC 3081 located over 86 million light-years from Earth is seen in an undated NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image. (REUTERS/NASA/ESA/Hubble/Handout via Reuters)

Japanese construction giant Obayashi first talked about building an elevator into space a few years ago, and this week it wants everyone to know it hasn’t given up on the idea.

While the idea may sound somewhat fantastical to many observers, the Tokyo-based firm said it believes it will have a space elevator operating by 2050.

Obayashi, whose work includes the construction of the world’s tallest tower – Tokyo’s Skytree – says the cable carrying the elevator could reach as far as 60,000 miles into space with a counterweight at the end, while the terminal station would be located 22,400 miles above Earth.

Related: SpaceX to build its own spaceport in Texas

The system would comprise robotic cars powered by magnetic linear motors, Australia’s ABC News reported Monday. Once built, the cost of transporting humans and cargo into space would be significantly lower than traditional rocket-based travel.

The cable could, for example, enable small rockets to be transported into space to the terminal station, from where they could launch, saving huge amounts of money on fuel costs in the process.

With the cars designed to carry up to 30 people, the elevator could also prove a real boost for the space tourism industry. However, you’d have to be OK about spending seven days together, as that’s how long the journey to the ‘top floor’ is expected to take.

Related: Startup tests space tourism balloon, service set to lift off in 2016

Yoji Ishikawa, a research and development manager at Obayashi, said the project has been made possible by the development of carbon nanotechnology, which has a tensile strength around 100 times greater than steel cable.

“Right now we can’t make the cable long enough,” Ishikawa said. “We can only make 3-cm-long nanotubes, but we need much more. We think by 2030 we’ll be able to do it.”

Engineering departments at universities across Japan are holding regular contests to try to further develop the technology for Obayashi’s ambitious space elevator plan.

A major study conducted two years ago on the project’s feasibility found that Obayashi’s space elevator was not merely the stuff of science fiction but actually a real possibility. However, in order for it to become a reality, it recommended some form of international co-operation.

NASA says Maven spacecraft enters orbit around Mars

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NASA’s Maven spacecraft has entered orbit around Mars, completing a journey that lasted nearly a year and covered 442 million miles.

NASA said late Sunday that the robotic explorer had fired its brakes and slipped into orbit, successfully completing the first part of its $671 million mission.

“This is such an incredible night,” John Grunsfeld, NASA’s chief for science missions, told The Associated Press.

Flight controllers will spend the next six weeks adjusting Maven’s altitude and checking its science instruments. Then Maven will start probing the planet’s upper atmosphere. The spacecraft will conduct its observations from orbit; it’s not meant to land.

Scientists believe the Martian atmosphere holds clues as to how Earth’s neighbor went from being warm and wet billions of years ago to cold and dry. That early moist world may have harbored microbial life, a tantalizing question yet to be answered.

The spacecraft was launched from Cape Canaveral this past November, making it the 10th U.S. mission sent to orbit the red planet. Three earlier ones failed, and until the official word came of success late Sunday night, the entire team was on edge.

“I don’t have any fingernails any more, but we’ve made it,” said Colleen Hartman, deputy director for science at Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “It’s incredible.”

The spacecraft was clocking more than 10,000 mph when it hit the brakes for the so-called orbital insertion, a half-hour process. The world had to wait 12 minutes to learn the outcome, once it occurred, because of the lag in spacecraft signals given the 138 million miles between the two planets on Sunday.

“Based on observed navigation data, congratulations, Maven is now in Mars orbit,” came the official announcement. Flight controllers applauded the news and shook hands; laughter filled the previously tense-filled room.

Maven joins three spacecraft already circling Mars, two American and one European. And the traffic jam isn’t over: India’s first interplanetary probe, Mangalyaan, will reach Mars in two days and also aim for orbit.

Maven’s chief investigator, Bruce Jakosky of the University of Colorado’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics in Boulder, hopes to learn where all the water on Mars went, along with the carbon dioxide that once comprised an atmosphere thick enough to hold moist clouds.

The gases may have been stripped away by the sun early in Mars’ existence, escaping into the upper atmosphere and out into space. Maven’s observations should be able to extrapolate back in time, Jakosky said.

Maven — short for Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution Mission — will spend at least a year collecting data. That’s a full Earth year, half a Martian one. Its orbit will dip as low as 78 miles above the Martian surface as its eight instruments make measurements. The craft is as long as a school bus, from solar wingtip to tip, and as hefty as an SUV.

Maven will have a rare brush with a comet next month.

The nucleus of newly discovered Comet Siding Spring will pass 82,000 miles from Mars on Oct. 19. The risk of comet dust damaging Maven is low, officials said, and the spacecraft should be able to observe Siding Spring as a science bonus.

Lockheed Martin Corp., Maven’s maker, is operating the mission from its control center at Littleton, Colorado.

This is NASA’s 21st shot at Mars and the first since the Curiosity rover landed on the red planet in 2012. Just this month, Curiosity arrived at its prime science target, a mountain named Sharp, ripe for drilling. The Opportunity rover is also still active a decade after landing.

All these robotic scouts are paving the way for the human explorers that NASA hopes to send in the 2030s.

US military’s meteor explosion data can help scientists protect earth

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    Artist’s view of 2013 fireball explosion over Chelyabinsk, Russia — termed a “superbolide” event. (Don Davis)

The U.S. Air Force and NASA have ironed out problems that prevented scientists from obtaining a steady stream of military tracking data on meteor explosions within Earth’s atmosphere.

Ever since the meteor explosion over Chelyabinsk, Russia, in February 2013, scientists have been hungry for data that can help them assess the threat of fireballs, meteors and near-Earth objects (NEOs).

Meteor detonations within Earth’s atmosphere can be seen by U.S. military sensors on secretive spacecraft. Using this government data, in early 2013, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) launched a new website to share the details of meteor explosion events. [Photos: Potentially Dangerous Asteroids]

But earlier this year, the site became stagnant, with no new updates. Due to budget cuts and personnel reductions, NASA’s military partner was no longer able to carry out the work.

Repairing the meteor explosions pipeline

However, documents are now in place to ensure that the site is updated with a constant stream of data on meteor explosions, which are also known as bolides. In January 2013, the Air Force Space Command’s Air, Space and Cyberspace Operations directorate formalized its work with NASA’s Science Mission directorate with a memorandum of agreement (MOA).

“The MOA was amended effective June 24, 2014, in order to ensure that the flow of bolide data to the scientific community is uninterrupted,” a representative for the U.S. Air Force Space Command’s Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC), which oversees military space systems, told Space.com. “With added language to the formal MOA, SMC will provide bolide data on a consistent basis and alleviate any concerns of data flow getting cut off.”

Furthermore, there is a separate SMC team at Schriever Air Force Base in Colorado that’s responsible for the processing and dissemination of the data, the SMC representative said.

Trove of data

One big reason why the military data on bolides is so important is that there is increasing evidence that Earth is on the receiving end of a sizable amount of natural asteroid/comet material, otherwise known as “spacefall.”

By reviewing military-sensor data collected over the years, scientists hope to better understand spacefall rates. However, all of the data isn’t available just yet.

“The plan is to release all appropriate data, although it will take some time for processing to occur,” the SMC representative told Space.com. “The Air Force has maintained a database of all detected events. The archived raw data requires very intricate and specific processing through a software program so that it can be useful to an external organization.”

The data will give scientists a better idea of the population of very small asteroids that regularly encounter the Earth, and help researchers estimate how many larger objects may exist, said Lindley Johnson, NEO program executive within the Planetary Science Division of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington, D.C.

Peter Brown, director of the Center for Planetary Science and Exploration at the University of Western Ontario in Canada, called the partnership a “major step forward.”

“Speaking from the science community perspective, I would say this partnership and agreement between Air Force Space Command and NASA is a major step forward in terms of being able to study and analyze small impactors,” Brown told Space.com.

For example, the data from the JPL fireball website helps correlate U.S. government sensor observations of fireballs with infrasound detections by the International Monitoring System (IMS), a network overseen by the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization.

Independent check

Researchers can calibrate the current global detection efficiency of the IMS, Brown said. This U.S. government sensor-infrasound comparison also provides an independent check on the fireball energies and flags unusual events, he said.

“The timely release of this information on the JPL website now also permits rapid follow-up of interesting bolides to facilitate time-sensitive studies, such as meteorite or airborne dust recovery, for the first time,” Brown said.

In addition, the data contain a “potential goldmine of information,” particularly regarding meteorite-producing fireballs and their pre-atmospheric orbits, as well as information that helps address the general question of meteorite-asteroid linkages, he said.

Regular space rock reports

But in order for the data to be useful, it must be distributed regularly, scientists say.

“The [Air Force] responses sound positive,” said Clark Chapman, asteroid expert with the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado.”But the proof of any change in practices will come with actual, regular distribution of such information to interested scientists, hopefully very shortly after a detected event,” he told Space.com.

Chapman said he and other specialists look forward to receiving timely and regular reports of bolide events via the Air Force/NASA relationship.

To view the “Fireball and Bolide Reports” website, overseen by NASA’s Near-Earth Object Program, visit http://neo.jpl.nasa.gov/fireballs/.

NASA inspector blasts asteroid protection program

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Image courtesy of NASA shows an artist’s concept of a broken-up asteroid. (REUTERS/NASA/JPL-Caltech/Handout)

NASA’s effort to identify potentially dangerous space rocks has taken a hit.

On Monday, the space agency’s inspector general released a report blasting NASA’s Near Earth Objects program, which is meant to hunt and catalog comets, asteroids and relatively large fragments of these objects that pass within 28 million miles of Earth. The purpose is to protect the planet against their potential dangers.

Most near-Earth objects harmlessly disintegrate before reaching Earth’s surface. But there are exceptions, like the nearly 60-foot meteor that exploded over Russia in 2013, causing considerable damage.

In a 44-page report, Inspector General Paul Martin said the Near Earth Objects program needs to be better organized and managed, with a bigger staff.

NASA’s science mission chief, former astronaut John Grunsfeld, agreed and promised the problems will be fixed.

“NASA places a high priority on finding and characterizing hazardous asteroids to protect our home planet from them” he said in a statement.

According to the report, the program has an executive at NASA headquarters and two offices in Massachusetts and California, each with six employees.

For nearly a decade, the report noted, NASA has been tracking near-Earth objects bigger than 460 feet across. The goal was to catalog 90 percent by 2020.

The space agency has discovered and plotted the orbits of more than 11,000 near-Earth objects since 1998, an estimated 10 percent. It does not expect to meet the 2020 deadline.

The program has insufficient oversight, Martin’s office concluded, and no established milestones to track progress. In addition, NASA needs to do a better job of overseeing the various observatories searching for near-Earth objects, and teaming up with other U.S. and international agencies, the report said.

NASA awards space taxi contract to Boeing and SpaceX

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The space shuttle Atlantis leaves the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida November 2, 2012. (REUTERS/Joe Skipper)

NASA has awarded the highly-anticipated space taxi contract to Boeing and SpaceX,  a move which will end the agency’s reliance on Russian technology to transport U.S. astronauts to the International Space Station.

The Commercial Crew Transportation Capability contract aims to restore an American capability to launch astronauts from U.S. soil to the International Space Station by the end of 2017. Since the end of the Space Shuttle program in 2011, American astronauts have been transported to space on Russian-built Soyuz vessels.

“We know that going to space is hard,” said Kathy Lueders, NASA’s Commercial Crew program manager, during a press conference at Kennedy Space Center. “NASA and aerospace industry have accomplished hard things in the past.”

In addition to SpaceX and Boeing, Sierra Nevada and Blue Origin were all in the running for the $6.8 billion contract.

During the press conference, Lueders explained that NASA’s deals with Boeing and SpaceX are worth $4.2 billion and $2.6 billion, respectively. “There’s a maximum of 6 missions under that contract value,” she added.

Boeing’s CST-100 spacecraft, which recently completed its critical design review of integrated systems, was at the core of the company’s bid. SpaceX’s Dragon craft led its bid.