Archive for Outer Space

Unmanned Antares rocket explodes after liftoff


NASA officials warned people to keep away from potentially hazardous debris after an unmanned cargo rocket bound for the International Space Station exploded Tuesday over a launchpad in Virginia.

No injuries were reported following the first catastrophic launch in NASA’s commercial spaceflight effort.

The accident at Orbital Sciences Corp.’s launch complex at Wallops Island was sure to draw criticism over the space agency’s growing reliance on private U.S. companies in this post-shuttle era. NASA is paying billions of dollars to Orbital Sciences and the SpaceX company to make station deliveries, and it’s counting on SpaceX and Boeing to start flying U.S. astronauts to the orbiting lab as early as 2017. This was the fourth flight by Orbital Sciences to the orbiting lab.

Orbital Sciences’ executive vice president Frank Culbertson said things began to go wrong 10 to 12 seconds into the flight and it was all over in 20 seconds when what was left of the rocket came crashing down. He said he believes the range-safety staff sent a destruct signal before it hit the ground. The company said everyone at the site had been accounted for, and the damage appeared to be limited to the facilities.

Bill Wrobel, director of NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, said crews were letting the fires burn out late Tuesday and set up a perimeter to contain them in the darkness

There was no hint of any trouble until the rocket exploded. This was the second launch attempt for the mission. Monday evening’s try was thwarted by a stray sailboat in the rocket’s danger zone. The restrictions are in case of just such an accident that occurred Tuesday.

Culbertson said the top priority will be repairing the launch pad “as quickly and safely as possible.”

He said he could not guess how long it will take to determine the cause of the accident and to make repairs. Culbertson said the company carried insurance on the mission, which he valued at more than $200 million, not counting repair costs.

He stressed that it was too soon to know whether the Russian-built engines, modified for the Antares and extensively tested, were to blame.

“We will understand what happened — hopefully soon — and we’ll get things back on track,”Culbertson told his team an hour after the failure. “We’ve all seen this happen in our business before, and we’ve all seen the teams recover from this, and we will do the same.”

The Wallops facility is small compared to NASA’s major centers like those in Florida, Texas and California, but vaulted into the public spotlight in September 2013 with a NASA moonshot and the first Cygnus launch to the space station.

Michelle Murphy, an innkeeper at the Garden and Sea Inn, New Church, Virginia, where launches are visible across a bay about 16 miles away, witnessed the explosion.

“It was scary. Everything rattled,” she said. “There were two explosions. The first one we were ready for. The second one we weren’t. It shook the inn, like an earthquake.”

The roomful of engineers and technicians were ordered to maintain all computer data for the ensuing investigation. Culbertson advised his staff not to talk to news reporters and to refrain from speculating among themselves.

“Definitely do not talk outside of our family,” said Culbertson, a former astronaut who once served on the space station.

This newest Cygnus cargo ship — named for the swan constellation — had held 5,000 pounds of space station experiments and equipment for NASA, as well as prepackaged meals and eagerly awaited crab cakes, freeze-dried for safe eating. It had been due to arrive at the orbiting lab Sunday.

By coincidence, the Russian Space Agency was proceeding with its own supply run on Wednesday, planned well before the U.S. mishap. And SpaceX is scheduled to launch another Dragon supply ship from Cape Canaveral in December; some items may be changed out to replace what was lost on the Cygnus.

NASA space station program manager Mike Suffredini told reporters that the station and its crew have plenty of supplies on board — about five months’ worth — even without the upcoming launches.

Among the science instruments that were lost: a meteor tracker and 32 mini research satellites, along with numerous experiments compiled by schoolchildren. Suffredini promised the experimenters would get a chance to refly their work.

The two Americans, three Russians and one German on the orbiting lab were informed promptly of the accident.

Until Tuesday, all of the supply missions by the Virginia-based Orbital Sciences and California-based SpaceX had been near-flawless.

President Obama has long championed this commercial effort, urging that NASA focus its human spaceflight effort less on nearby orbit and more on destinations like asteroids and Mars. He was in Wisconsin for a campaign rally Tuesday evening and was kept abreast of the accident and its developments.

SpaceX’s billionaire founder and chief officer Elon Musk — whose company is the face, in many ways, of the commercial effort — said he was sorry to learn about the failure. “Hope they recover soon,” he said in a tweet.

Support poured in from elsewhere in the space community late Tuesday night.

“We are with you @OrbitalSciences and @NASA,” former NASA astronaut Leland Melvin said via Twitter.

“Very sorry to see the Antares rocket launch failure,” said Chris Hadfield, a former Canadian astronaut who served as space station commander last year. “Spaceflight is hard. Very glad that no one was hurt. Now time to sort out why & effects.”

John Logdson, former space policy director at George Washington University, said it was unlikely to be a major setback to NASA’s commercial space plans. But he noted it could derail Orbital Sciences for a while given the company has just one launch pad and the accident occurred right above it.

“It shows the wisdom of having more than one source” for launches, Logsdon said. Nevertheless, he added, “This is going to put the logistics chain for the station under some stress for a period of time.”

U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat who flew on a space shuttle right before the 1986 Challenger disaster, said in a statement, “Space flight is inherently risky. As we push the frontiers of space there will be setbacks. But our commercial space ventures will ultimately be successful.”

The explosion also hit Orbital Science’s stock, which fell more than 15 percent in after-hours trading.

Saturn’s ‘Death Star’ moon Mimas is weird inside



A photo of Saturn’s moon Mimas. (NASA/JPL)

There’s something strange going on below the surface of Saturn’s Death Star-looking moon Mimas, a new study suggests.

Mimas’ rotation and its orbit around Saturn make the moon look like it’s rocking and back forth and oscillating similar to the way a pendulum swings. The rocking motion is called libration, and it’s commonly observed in moons that are influenced by the gravity from neighboring planets. However, using images of the moon captured by the Cassini spacecraft, Radwan Tajeddine, a research associate at Cornell University, discovered that the satellite’s libration was much more exaggerated in one spot than predicted. Heexpects it must be caused by the moon’s weird interior.

“We’re very excited about this measurement because it may indicate much about the satellite’s insides,” Tajeddine said in a statement. “Nature is essentially allowing us to do the same thing that a child does when she shakes a wrapped gift in hopes of figuring out what’s hidden inside.” [See photos of Mimas, Saturn's Death Star Moon]

Feel the libration

Astronomers have long been using the rotation and orbit of celestial bodies to guess what their interiors might be like. Most of the rocking is explained by the interacting forces from Mimas’ rotation and orbit, but one libration was much larger than expected.

Tajeddine and the team tested five different models of what Mimas might look like below the surface to see which one could explain the exaggerated rocking. They quickly ruled out the possibility that Mimas has a uniform interior, an interior with two different layers or an abnormal mass under the moon’s 88-mile-long crater that makes it look like the Death Star from the “Star Wars” franchise.

However, the last two models could both explain Mimas’ extreme libration. One idea is that the moon has an elongated, oval-shaped core. This elongation might have happened as the moon formed under the push and pull of Saturn’s rings. The teeter tottering could also come from a subsurface ocean, similar to the one on Jupiter’s moon Europa.

While it’s still a possibility, Tajeddine thinks the subsurface ocean is an unlikely explanation. Astronomers have not observed any evidence of liquid water on Mimas, unlike some of Saturn’s other moons. The heat radiating from the core escapes through the moon’s ice-covered shell and would cause any subsurface ocean that existed to quickly freeze.

3D Mimas map

Mimas is the smallest and closest of Saturn’s main eight moons. Its giant crater covers almost one-third of the moon’s icy surface.

For the past 10 years,the Cassini space probe has been collecting data on Mimas, Saturn and the ringed wonder’s other natural satellites. The Imaging Science Subsystem (ISS) onboard Cassini is a two-camera system that captures ultraviolet and infrared images of Saturn and its moons.

Tajeddine and a team of researchers sifted through dozens of images captured by ISS and created a 3D map of the moon from the photos to study how Mimas spins and orbits Saturn.

The new research was published this week in the journal Science.

  • partial-solar-eclipse-visibility-oct23-2014

    This NASA graphic shows the visibility area of the partial total solar eclipse of Oct. 23, 2014. The eclipse will be visible from most of the United States, weather permitting. (Science@NASA)

Mark Thursday (Oct. 23) on your calendar as “Solar Eclipse Day,” for if the weather cooperates, you should have no difficulty observing a partial eclipse of the sun.

Nearly all of North America, except for a portion of eastern Canada and a slice of eastern New England, will experience the partial solar eclipse this week. People who live east of a line running from roughly Quebec City to Montauk Point, New York, will miss out on the solar show, since the sun will set before the dark disc of the moon begins to encroach upon it.

The several hundred thousand people who inhabit parts of Siberia will get a brief view around local sunrise time — but on Friday (Oct. 24), because this part of the eclipse visibility zone is to the west of the International Date Line. So, for this part of the world, the event will begin on the day after it ends! [Partial Solar Eclipse of October 2014: Visibility Maps]

Greatest eclipse, with more than four-fifths of the sun’s diameter covered by the moon, will occur over the Canadian Arctic at M’Clintock Channel, an arm of the Arctic Ocean, which divides Victoria Island from Prince of Wales Island in the territory of Nunavut.

The rest of North America will see less of the sun covered.

For much of Alaska, western and central Canada, the Pacific Northwest and the northern Plains, more than 60 percent of the sun’s diameter will be covered by the passing new moon. For the Southwest and central and southern Plains, the eclipse magnitude diminishes to between 40 and 60 percent. Across the Ohio, Tennessee and Mississippi valleys, maximum eclipse will coincide with sunset, while farther to the east, the moon will only begin its encroachment onto the sun’s disc as it sets.

In the United States, more than half of the sun’s diameter will be covered north of a line extending from San Francisco to the Oklahoma panhandle. But this will occur in the mid- to late-afternoon hours — too late to dim the landscape abnormally. Some people might still attempt to record the gradual fading and recovery of the sunlight with sensitive photographic exposure meters. These can be set to view a light-colored wall that faces toward the Southwest.

Be careful!

Unlike a total eclipse of the sun, which concentrates viewing excitement into a few fleeting minutes, a partial solar eclipse can be watched without urgency.

Observations can be made with the naked eye, binoculars or telescopes of any size. Of course, eyes and instruments must be protected by special filters from the intense light and heat of the focused solar rays. Keep in mind that the sun is no less dangerous to look at during a partial eclipse than it is on a normal sunny day. Don’t be tempted to squint at the spectacle or steal unsafe glances just because part of the sun’s surface is blocked by the moon! [How to Safely Observe the Sun (Infographic)]

During the eclipse, drawings and photographs can be made to show the moon’s progress across the solar disc. If your camera is capable of taking multiple exposures through a wide-angle lens, the whole phenomenon might be captured on a composite scene, but a telephoto lens is necessary if you’re trying to bring out the jagged profile of the lunar limb. The moon may temporarily hide some sunspots.

At locations where sunset occurs before the end of partial eclipse, some unusual pictures might be obtained, especially if horizon conditions favor the occurrence of the atmospheric phenomenon known as the green flash on the sun’s upper rim.

But again, be careful! Only attempt such observations if you have the proper solar filters. If you don’t have them, don’t watch the eclipse directly, either with the naked eye or through binoculars or a telescope — serious and permanent eye damage will likely result.

Pinhole eclipses

People who aren’t expecting the event will probably not notice it, although some might see the peculiar shape of “pinhole” images of the sun cast by trees and bushes. Indoors, closed Venetian blinds in a southwest-facing window may produce rows of such images, where sunlight passes through small openings.

Also, a small hole pierced in a dark shade will cast a sizable eclipse image onto a wall, floor or screen.  Thus, even a person confined indoors can watch this celestial phenomenon.

Local circumstances and eclipse times for the United States can be found here:

And information for a number of cities in Canada and Mexico is listed here:

These data are courtesy of eclipse expert Fred Espenak, who works at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland.

A warm-up for 2017

While Thursday’s solar eclipse will be exciting, some skywatchers in North America are already looking ahead three years.

On Aug. 21, 2017, the first total eclipse of the sun to be visible from the contiguous 48 states in nearly four decades will sweep in an east-southeast direction from Oregon to South Carolina. So, for many, Oct. 23 will provide a rehearsal for the big event of 2017.

Although it lacks many phenomena that occur during a total eclipse, a partial one nonetheless provides an excellent opportunity to try out instruments and procedures

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


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 “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 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 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 “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


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

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

Lunar Eclipse-1

Lunar Eclipse-1.jpg

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


  • SpaceWorksEnterprises.jpg

    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


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

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 “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



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


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.