SpaceX launch ends in failure, rocket erupts

An unmanned SpaceX rocket carrying supplies and the first-of-its-kind docking port to the International Space Station broke apart Sunday shortly after liftoff. It was a severe blow to NASA, still reeling from previous failed shipments.

The accident occurred about 2 1/2 minutes into the flight from Cape Canaveral, Florida. Pieces could be seen falling into the Atlantic. More than 5,200 pounds of space station cargo were on board, including the first docking port designed for future commercial crew capsules.

“The vehicle has broken up,” announced NASA commentator George Diller. He said it was not clear how the disaster occurred or even when the rocket actually failed. Data stopped flowing from the rocket around 2 minutes and 19 seconds, he said. No astronauts were on board.

The California-based SpaceX was trying to figure out what happened, noting that everything appeared to go well in flight until the Falcon 9 rocket went supersonic.

It was a huge setback for NASA, which is counting on private industry to transport cargo — and eventually astronauts — to the orbiting lab. The seven previous SpaceX supply runs had gone exceedingly well.

This is the second failed station shipment in a row. In April, a Russian cargo ship spun out of control and burned up upon re-entry, along with all its precious contents. And last October, another company’s supply ship was destroyed in a launch accident.

This Dragon had been carrying replacement food, clothes and science experiments for items lost in those two mishaps.


The three space station residents are in no immediate trouble because of the latest failed delivery. Late last week, NASA’s space station program manager, Mike Suffredini, said the outpost had enough supplies on board to make it to October or so.

Russia expects to take another crack at launching supplies on Friday from Kazakhstan.

SpaceX, meanwhile, is one of two companies hired by NASA to start ferrying American astronauts to the space station as early as 2017. The other contender is Boeing.

SpaceX is led by billionaire Elon Musk, who also heads up Tesla, the electric car maker.


Originally posted : here

Solar storm could allow parts of the US to see polar auroras

A severe solar storm slammed Earth on Monday afternoon, increasing the chances of fluctuations in the power grid and GPS. It also pushes shimmering polar auroras to places where more people can possibly see them.

Federal forecasters said the Northern Lights may be able to be seen Tuesday night as far south as Iowa or Pennsylvania.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said a potent blast of magnetic plasma shot out of the sun on Sunday, travelling faster than usual, hitting Earth with the biggest solar storm since March, maybe since September 2005.

NOAA space weather physicist Doug Biesecker said there are no reports of damage, but the electrical grid and GPS probably had current fluctuations that they could handle.

He said the storm could last a day or longer.


Originally posted : here

High school student discovers alien planet

  • wasp_142_high

    This artist’s impression depicts Tom Wagg’s planet, WASP-142b, in orbit around its star, WASP-142. (David A. Hardy)

An English high school student has become perhaps the youngest person ever to discover an alien planet.

Fifteen-year-old Tom Wagg first detected the gas-giant exoplanet two years ago, while doing work-experience study at Keele University in England. Further observations have now confirmed the existence of the alien world, which lies about 1,000 light-years from Earth and is known as WASP-142b.

“I’m hugely excited to have a found a new planet, and I’m very impressed that we can find them so far away,” Wagg, now 17, said in statement.

Wagg analyzed data gathered by the Wide Angle Search for Planets (WASP) project, looking for tiny dips in stars’ brightness caused by planets passing in front of them. This strategy, known as the transit method, is the same one used by NASA’s Kepler spacecraft, which has discovered more than half of the roughly 1,900 known exoplanets to date.

WASP-142b is a “hot Jupiter.” It’s about the same size as our solar system’s largest planet but lies extremely close to its host star, completing one orbit every two days, researchers said.

Scientists think hot Jupiters form relatively far from their parent stars, then migrate inward over time as the result of gravitational interactions with other planets. So the WASP-142 system likely harbors worlds that have eluded detection thus far, researchers said.

Wagg, a student at the Newcastle-under-Lyme School in the English county of Staffordshire, plans to study physics when he attends university. He asked to participate in the work-study program at Keele after learning that the university hosts a research group focused on exoplanets.

“Tom is keen to learn about science, so it was easy to train him to look for planets,” Coel Hellier, who heads Keele’s WASP project, said in the same statement.

Wagg’s detection of WASP-142b was confirmed by astronomers based at the University of Geneva in Switzerland and the University of Liege in Belgium, researchers said.



Originally Published here

What will it be like to live on Mars? Inflatable and super sustainable


An inflatable structure would be ideal for the months-long journey to Mars. (NASA)

It’s been a long day, but you take one last glance around at the ochre sky and clay-colored earth before heading inside the inflatable, windowless structure you now call home. You open the airlock doors and begin to shed your spacesuit. You’ll pass through a series of segments along the entryway, to ensure the living quarters are protected from the elements and you don’t track in any Martian dust, either. Instead of joining your crew members in the galley or using the miniature treadmill-like device set up in the training area (spending the afternoon exploring the surface of Mars with only a fraction of Earth’s gravity has been quite enough exercise for one day, thank you), you hope for a few moments alone in your room before you have to start work on the samples you’ve collected.

NASA plans to send humans to Mars in the 2030s, and it’s Larry Toups’ job to make the planet habitable once they get there. To do so, he looks to not-quite-alien environments like submarines, Antarctic research stations, and oil rigs. He also builds upon what he learned as part of the team constructing the International Space Station. The habitable satellite is a proving ground for future Mars technology, too.

As part of a team made up of fewer than 20 people, Toups is Habitation Lead for NASA’s Human Space Flight Architecture Team, working on the Evolvable Mars Campaign. “The real important work, at least for the next five to ten years, is how do we evolve from our space station, which we have in the lower earth orbit, and how do we enable exploring, going further out into the solar system and for longer periods of time,” he tells Digital Trends. “The ultimate destination with this work is Mars.” NASA, as well as some other groups like Mars One, want to establish a foothold on the Red Planet, to “pioneer it,” as Toups says.

While Toups’ background is in architecture — he has a Masters Degree in Space Architecture from the University of Houston’s Sasakawa Institute for Space Architecture — other project members are focused on food production, life-support systems, or power systems. Creating a habitat on Mars does have some similarities to building a house on earth, he says. “It’s the integration of many different disciplines that all have different expertise that, if you organize it right and everyone works as a team, you come out with a very cohesive, integrated set of solutions to some very far-out problems.”

Related: 13 awe-inspiring NASA photos of space

And making Mars livable isn’t as simple as finding a heater to make the minus-80-degrees-Fahrenheit average temperatures bearable. Getting there is half the battle, as everything needs to fit in the rockets taking the months-long journey. This includes the habitat itself, hence why the structure is inflatable: Travel light and carry an expandable building.

Just because it’s inflatable doesn’t mean it won’t be protective; it will have to be, to allow humans to survive. “On the surface of Mars, you don’t have the benefit of our atmosphere on Earth, which shields a lot of the galactic, cosmic radiation, as well as shelters you from solar flare events,” says Toups.

Because the trip back and forth is a long one (and one whose length depends on where the two planets are in their orbits), those heading to Mars will need to fend for themselves when it comes to food, water, and oxygen. “It will probably be, in my estimation, the most sustainable home that you’ll ever build,” Toups says, “because you’ll be in an environment where there is no existing, pre-integrated electrical grid.” The Mars dwellers will have to recycle as much waste water as possible. “Currently on Space Station, we have a system in place that recycles a certain percentage of the waste water, if you want to call it that: condensate, perspiration from the crew, urine, all those types of things that come into play,” says Toups. “I think our recovery rate is hovering around 90 percent.” As for food, crew members on ISS are starting to grow some small, leafy plants, though on Mars these could pull double duty converting carbon dioxide. The habitat could be put in place before the crew arrives, which is why the Evolvable team is looking at autonomous technology like smart thermostats, in case the structure needs to take care of itself.

Other areas of the habitat could include a sort of lab for experiments, a common area for the crew to eat meals together, spaces for medical and repair equipment, and a place to watch training videos to keep their skills sharp. While Toups admits the structure will be Spartan, he says it’s important to also design for the psychological aspects of the mission. The crew may be away from home for three years. In order to make the habitat feel like home, Toups and the team think about things like normalizing the pressure to feel like Earth but also providing entertainment and potentially a way to connect with those they left behind.

Toups compares it to the way people become acclimatized to the chilly, air-conditioned feel of their office buildings on hot summer days. For the temporary Martians, the harsh outdoor conditions will always be foreign and walled off; what’s inside becomes the natural environment. “The characteristic of a Mars habitat might take on, at least initially, the sense of a very safe haven that you find comforting,” says Toups. “Whatever you’re providing for that internal atmosphere is safe and secure; you don’t want to have a breach of that. That’s, as they say, a bad day at the office.”

Originally published here

Eerie comet landscape revealed by Rosetta spacecraft photos


This single-frame Rosetta navigation camera image of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko was taken on October 19, 2014, at a distance of approximately 4.9 miles (7.9 km) from the comet’s surface and released on May 28. The image looks across the ne (ESA/Rosetta/NavCam – CC BY-SA IGO 3.0)

A deluge of newly released photos from the Rosetta mission reveals the haunting alien landscape on the surface of a comet as it orbits the sun.

Over the last few weeks, the European Space Agency (ESA) has released over 1,700 new images of the Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, taken by the Rosetta spacecraft during its closest approach to the 2.5-mile-wide space rock. The photos emanate an eerie stillness on the rocky, lifeless surface.

The two-lobe shape of 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko has drawn comparisons to a rubber duck (with a round head and larger body joined together by a narrow section). One of the new images was taken from the smaller lobe, with the larger lobe rising up like a cliff face in the distance.

The images reveal a highly varied topological landscape on the surface of the comet. In one image, the cliffs of Hathor are visible. These cliffs stretch 2952 feet high.

Rosetta traveled to Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko along with the Philae lander, which touched down on the comet’s surface on Nov. 12, 2014. Philae bounced off the surface and came to rest in a shadowed region where its solar panels do not receive enough light to recharge the lander.

The swarm of newly released photos was taken around the time that Philae made its historic leap onto the comet’s surface. This video shows Rosetta’s orbital path around this time, including its release of Philae and its close approach to 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.

There is more information about the photo release and about the entire mission at the Rosetta blog.


Originally posted here :

Slippery slopes on Mars send Curiosity Rover on detour


This image, captured by NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity on May 10, 2015, shows rough terrain on the way to an outcrop (light-colored rock in middle distance). Curiosity’s handlers decided not to traverse this terrain and took a different route inst (NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity has found a new route to some interesting rocks after its original path proved too difficult to traverse.

Scientists want the car-size Curiosity rover to check out a “geological contact” where two different rock units meet. Curiosity tried to reach such a contact earlier this month, but the robot’s six wheels slipped too much during three out of four drives between May 7 and May 13, NASA officials said.

“Mars can be very deceptive,” Chris Roumeliotis, Curiosity’s lead rover driver at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, said in a statement.

“We knew that polygonal sand ripples have caused Curiosity a lot of drive slip in the past, but there appeared to be terrain with rockier, more consolidated characteristics directly adjacent to these ripples,” Roumeliotis added. “So we drove around the sand ripples onto what we expected to be firmer terrain that would give Curiosity better traction. Unfortunately, this terrain turned out to be unconsolidated material too, which definitely surprised us and Curiosity.”

So the rover team decided to map out a new route using images captured by Curiosity and NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which has been circling the Red Planet since 2006. This alternate path would allow Curiosity to examine a similar contact to the west.

A 72-foot drive on May 21, during which Curiosity climbed up a hill and dealt with 21-degree slopes, brought the rover close to this contact, NASA officials said.

Curiosity, which landed on Mars in August 2012, has been exploring the base of Mount Sharp since September 2014. The geological contact contains light-colored rocks similar to those that Curiosity has already studied near the mountain’s base, as well as darker material less familiar to the rover team, researchers said.

The rover’s main goal is to determine if Mars could ever have supported microbial life. Mission scientists have already answered that question in the affirmative, determining that the area near Curiosity’s landing site was a habitable lake-and-stream system billions of years ago. The rover is now climbing up Mount Sharp’s foothills, reading the rocks for clues about how the Red Planet’s climate and surface conditions have changed over time.


Originally posted here :

Strange signal from space may solve one of science’s greatest mysteries


An artist’s depiction of the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope (FGST) in orbit. (NASA)

A clue to one of the biggest questions in cosmology — why regular matter, rather than antimatter, survived to fill the universe — may have been found in data from a NASA space telescope.

A new study suggests that gamma-rays (high-energy light) detected by the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope show signs of the existence of a magnetic field that originated mere nanoseconds after the Big Bang. In addition, the researchers on the new study speculate that the magnetic field carries evidence of the fact that there is far more matter than antimatter in our universe.

The detection of the signal in the Fermi data is currently too weak to be claimed as a “discovery,” and no other solid evidence of an early-universe magnetic field exists. But if the signal bears out and the researchers’ speculations withstand scrutiny, the work could help scientists understand why the observable universe is made primarily of matter and not antimatter. [The Gamma Ray Universe: Photos by the Fermi Telescope]

Matter vs. antimatter

It’s easy to take matter for granted. The stuff that makes up our planet and everything on it — as well as our sun and all the other visible objects in the universe — never seems to be at risk of disappearing in an instant. But around the time our universe was born, there may have been just such an instant — a moment when matter won out and something called antimatter did not.

Cosmologists think the universe started with equal parts matter and antimatter; when matter and antimatter collide with great force, they annihilate each other. So, what happened to most of the antimatter (it still exists in the universe, but in very small quantities)? Why did matter dominate? It’s one of the biggest questions plaguing modern science.

Tanmay Vachaspati, a professor of physics at Arizona State University and his colleagues think they have found a clue to this mystery. They say that a signal in the Fermi gamma-ray data suggests an overwhelming production of matter, but not antimatter, in the early universe. They detailed their findings in a paper published online May 14 in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

A universal magnetic field

The team claims to have identified a sort of “twisting” of the gamma rays that the Fermi telescope detects, and the researchers say the detection of this twisted gamma-ray signal is verified in their paper.

Vachaspati and his colleagues’ interpretation of what that signal means boils down to this: The twisted gamma-rays are evidence of a magnetic field that has been present in the universe since less than a second after the Big Bang. This magnetic field has a left-hand orientation, and that is evidence of the overwhelming production of matter in the early universe, as antimatter would have produced a right-hand orientation, they said. [Most Amazing Gamma Ray Sources in the Universe]

There are many particle-physics events that must occur for this magnetic field to leave an imprint on the gamma-rays, the researchers .

Scientists don’t know for sure if this kind of “primordial” magnetic field exists in our universe. There have been magnetic fields observed in some galaxies and galaxy clusters that could be magnifications of a magnetic field that already existed in the universe, and to demonstrate that it exists would be a fascinating discovery, scientists say.

The discovery of this left-hand signal was first reported by Vachaspati and colleagues in a paper published in 2014.

“We were kind of cautious, and we didn’t want to make a big deal of it, because we thought maybe the signal would go away with more data or more analysis,” Vachaspati said. “And then, in [the new paper], we used more data and did other kinds of analysis. And the signal is still there.”

But the signal may not be a “discovery” quite yet.

In analyzing statistical data from instruments like the Fermi telescope, there is always a chance that a signal could arise purely by chance. The odds of this occurring are measured by a value called sigma. A result with 1 sigma has roughly 1-in-3 odds of arising purely by chance (not a very good bet).

The signal detected by Vachaspati and colleagues has a 3-sigma uncertainty, or about 0.3 percent odds that it has appeared purely by chance. This may seem good, but in particle physics, most signals are not officially called a “discovery” until they have a 5-sigma value (1-in-2-million chance that the signal is a purely random fluctuation).

Tonia Venters, a researcher at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center who works with Fermi telescope data, said it’s important to practice caution.

“Our field has seen many results at [2- and 3-sigma] significances come and go, so we tend to be rather skeptical when faced with even a 3-sigma result (0.3% probability of occurring by chance),” Venters told in an email. “To us, a 3-sigma result is interesting enough to wait for more data, but not enough to generate much excitement.”

It should be noted that there are other ways to judge the validity of a signal, and sigma is not always the best metric to use. However, it often serves as a good way to quickly evaluate the strength of a result. Vachaspati said he puts more weight on the fact that certain predictions made about the signal in the first paper were confirmed in the new analysis.

The next step, Vachaspati said, is to continue to look for the signal in more Fermi telescope data. The collaboration is expected to release new data this year. He will discuss the work with colleagues from around the world at a monthlong conference on cosmological magnetic fields this June and July.

“I think the most important part is that we’re seeing a suspicious signal in the data, and then the rest is kind of one step at a time,” Vachaspati said. “We think the most likely candidate for why this is happening is the magnetic field. And then, if it is the magnetic field, then it seems most likely to me it’s going to be this matter-antimatter asymmetry.

“But people have different ideas, so that part becomes more theoretical,” he added. “The interesting thing is that there seems to be a signal.”


Originally posted here :

Venus plane pushed for next NASA New Frontiers mission

  • venus-atmospheric-maneuverable-platform

    Northrop Grumman has come up with a Venus mission concept called VAMP (Venus Atmospheric Maneuverable Platform): An inflatable propeller plane that could cruise Earth’s super-heated sister planet for years, sampling the acidic alien atmopshere (Northrop Grumman)

Northrop Grumman is developing an inflatable, propeller-powered aircraft for a years-long cruise in the sulfurous skies of Venus and is gearing up to enter the concept in NASA’s next New Frontiers planetary science competition.

That Northrop believes its Venus Atmospheric Maneuverable Platform, or VAMP, could be ready to compete for about $1 billion in NASA funding as soon as Oct. 1 is a testament to the company’s confidence in the concept, which despite arousing the intrigue of some Venus scientists is technically immature and likely to face competition from finalists of NASA’s last New Frontiers contest.

“I think we can be ready,” Ron Polidan, Northrop’s Redondo, California-based chief architect of civil systems, told SpaceNews.

The next New Frontiers competition is set to begin in the U.S. government’s 2016 fiscal year, which starts Oct. 1. The winning mission would have to be ready for launch around 2021, Jim Green, NASA’s director of planetary science, said in February.

To make that flight date, VAMP has to clear some major engineering hurdles.

For one thing, neither VAMP nor anything like it has ever flown. The closest thing there is to a VAMP prototype today is a pair of ultra-light wings built in 2008 and 2010 by Northrop’s partner L.Garde Inc. of Tustin, California, for a defunctDefense Advanced Research Projects Agency initiative called Rapid Eye. The Pentagon-funded experiment aimed to create a collapsible, rocket-deployed drone that could arrive for reconnaissance duties anywhere on Earth an hour after launch.

Northrop and L.Garde were working separate Rapid Eye contracts before combining their efforts prior to the project’s 2010 cancellation. The two L.Garde-built wings, essentially lightweight frames covered with an ultra-thin skin that would not survive in the caustic Venusian atmosphere, were tested in wind tunnels, but never in the sky. The larger of the wings was only about 2 meters long; an operational VAMP would have a 55-meter wingspan, Polidan said.

Factoring in L.Garde’s work on Rapid Eye, Polidan estimates the VAMP concept rates a three on NASA’s Technology Readiness Level (TRL) scale, meaning the enabling technologies are still at the “proof of concept” level of development. Technologies that have been “flight proven” through actual mission operations are designated TRL 9.

In its last New Frontiers competition, NASA accepted proposals only for concepts that had reached TRL 6 — a prototype demonstration in a relevant environment — or that could reach that benchmark by their preliminary design review.

New Frontiers is for “flight missions, not technology development projects,” NASA wrote in the solicitation for the last New Frontiers competition, which the Osiris-Rex asteroid sampler won in 2011.

Polidan does not think that is a deal-breaker.

“The one nice thing for New Frontiers is they would like you to be at TRL 6 by the preliminary design review, so that gives you a few more years,” Polidan said.

Unpacking Polidan’s reasoning, Osiris-Rex had its preliminary design review in March 2013, nearly four years after the start of the New Frontiers competition it eventually won. So if past is precedent (and if NASA maintains the same technology readiness standards for the next New Frontiers competition) Northrop could have as many as four years to prove VAMP can fly autonomously while bearing the weight and powering the instruments scientists most want aboard the craft.

“We have a list of a about a dozen instruments that people have proposed we fly … and we convened a science advisory board to help us define both the instruments and where the aircraft needs to be to take the needed measurements,” Polidan said.

Venus is one of the priority New Frontiers destinations identified in 2011 as part of the most recent planetary science decadal survey. Decadal surveys, published by the National Research Council, set science priorities in 10-year blocks. Hundreds of pages long, the surveys give NASA a compass to follow as it plans future missions and de facto triage instructions for times when budgets are tight.

In February, Green said NASA will not deviate from the decadal’s instructions for the upcoming New Frontiers competition. That means Venus is on the radar, but it also means neither Venus nor VAMP is a lock.

VAMP, should it enter the fray, will have to prove its mettle against missions to other high-priority New Frontiers destinations: the lunar poles; Jupiter’s moon, Io; the gas giant Saturn; and trojan asteroids.

Finalists from the 2011 competition that could be resubmitted for the 2016 contest are: the MoonRise lunar sample-return mission from Washington University in St. Louis, and a Venus lander called the Surface and Atmosphere Geochemical Explorer, a University of Colorado, Boulder, proposal modeled after a sample mission described in the latest planetary science decadal survey.

Flying the (mostly) friendly skies

Venus, which Polidan jokingly called Earth’s “ugly stepsister,” is not well understood by scientists. That is due almost entirely to the planet’s unforgiving environment, which is a punishing place even for machines.

The ground temperature on Earth’s superheated sister planet, first measured directly by the Soviet Union’s Venera 7 lander in 1970, hovers around 460 degrees Celsius. Ambient surface pressure is about 90 Earth atmospheres. That is the sort of pressure found 900 meters below the ocean’s surface.

“Surviving on the surface for any longer than four hours and getting high-resolution data is a challenge,” said Constantine Tsang, a research scientist at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, and a member of Northrop’s all-volunteer VAMP science advisory board

VAMP, however, would fly in a more forgiving environment. At its target altitude, 50 kilometers to 70 kilometers above the Venusian surface, pressures hover around 1 atmosphere, just like at sea level on Earth. The temperature at that altitude on Venus is about 15 degrees Celsius.

“Not a whole lot different than flying on Earth,” Polidan said. “If you wanna just sprinkle sulfuric acid all over yourself, that would be more like what you have on Venus.”

The acidity at altitude, unlike the unforgiving surface conditions, “we can handle now with a lot of the materials we have,” Tsang said.

Appliance of science

Engineering challenges aside, VAMP still has an existential question to answer before it stands a chance in any competed NASA mission line: Can an aircraft flying 50 kilometers above the surface of Venus answer the science community’s most pressing questions about the planet?

Northrop certainly thinks so. Its VAMP science advisory board is due to meet for the first time in May to help the company figure out the best ways to squeeze some of the priority science from the last planetary decadal onto VAMP.

VAMP also passed the scientific sniff test with Tsang and two other Venus specialists reached recently by SpaceNews.

All three of these scientists helped write the NASA-chartered Venus Exploration Analysis Group’s (VEXAG) 2014 science roadmap, “Goals, Objectives, and Investigations.” They agreed VAMP could complete some, although not all, of the roadmap’s proposed investigations.

“VAMP could not answer all key questions,” said Robert Herrick, a University of Alaska-based surface specialist who chaired the VEXAG committee in charge of the 2014 science roadmap. “Primarily, the platform would be for atmospheric science.”

That roadmap split Venus science objectives into three essential categories: atmospheric measurements, surface measurements and measurements of the surface’s interaction with the atmosphere.

VEXAG member Kevin McGouldrick, a research scientist with the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado, Boulder, said VAMP could probably answer all of the big atmospheric questions, half the questions about surface-atmosphere interactions, and even some of the big Venusian surface questions by “remotely sensing the surface.”

Constantine Tsang, a research associate at the Southwest Research Institute’s Boulder, Colorado, branch.

VAMP could make such remote surface measurements with nadir-facing infrared sensors, Tsang said.

“That would tell you whether the surface is basaltic, has igneous rocks, things like that,” he said. “But you couldn’t do isotopic ratio measurements of minerals, for example, that rovers could be doing.”

The three scientists differed about whether VAMP could fit inside the $1 billion New Frontiers cost cap. Herrick declined to make odds, McGouldrick was pessimistic, and Tsang saw a ray of hope.

“The downside of that is that VAMP is comparatively under-tested, which means it will be a difficult sell at any level of NASA mission, whether New Frontiers or flagship,” McGouldrick said.

Tsang, on the other hand, thought VAMP “probably would fit in a New Frontiers cost cap.”

Winging It on Other Planets

Conceivably, a VAMP-like aircraft, thanks to the low g-loads its light mass would produce, could inflate on orbit and descend into any planetary atmosphere for flight. That leaves the door open to fly VAMP any place in the solar system where a wing could create lift, such as Saturn’s moon Titan.

On Earth, a VAMP-like aircraft has science and defense applications that could, among other things, funnel some much-needed work to Northrop’s partner on VAMP, L.Garde.

“That third planet [Earth] may have interest in a vehicle of this nature for defense applications,” L.Garde spokesman Bert Watson told SpaceNews. Watson acknowledged L.Garde had “not yet” sniffed out any business leads at the Pentagon, however.

Any new business would help L.Garde, which in October laid off about half of its 35-person staff after NASA pulled the plug on the Sunjammer solar-sail mission. The small Sunjammer spacecraft would have used a shiny, 1,200-square-meter sail about 5 micrometers thick to perform near-perpetual station-keeping maneuvers at a solar orbit roughly 3 million kilometers from Earth.

But L.Garde could not find an experienced spacecraft prime to build the satellite, then failed to complete the build in house. NASA eventually lost confidence in the company and canceled the Sunjammer contract. L.Garde management subsequently admitted spacecraft development did not exactly fit in the company’s wheelhouse.

On the other hand, deployment of inflatable structures in space is a core competency, Watson said, pointing to L.Garde’s work on the successful Spartan 207/Inflatable Antenna Experiment that flew on the Space Shuttle Endeavour’s STS-77 mission in 1997.

On VAMP, L.Garde still has a relatively minor role, Watson said. The company’s contract with Northrop (Watson would not say how much the deal is worth) “will have L.Garde doing some materials evaluation for how the VAMP aircraft will be constructed.”

“If you’re talking about Venus, that’s a whole different set of atmospheric conditions than it would be for Earth,” Watson said. “So what materials meet the requirements? How you bring those layers together? What kind of adhesive? What kind of layering? Is permeability a concern?”

L.Garde expects to meet with Northrop soon to exchange ideas about the answers to some of those questions, Watson said.

This story was provided by SpaceNews, dedicated to covering all aspects of the space industry.

Originally posted here :

Ocean on Saturn moon Enceladus may have potential energy source to support life


This illustration shows the possible interior of the Saturn moon Enceladus. Data gathered by NASA’s Cassini probe suggests Enceladus has an ice outer shell and a rocky core with a regional water ocean sandwiched in between at high southern lati (NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI/PSI)

Saturn’s icy moon Enceladus is looking better and better as a potential abode for alien life.

Chemical reactions that free up energy that could potentially support a biosphere have occurred — and perhaps still are occurring — deep within Enceladus’ salty subsurface ocean, a new study suggests.

This determination comes less than two months after a different research team announced that active hydrothermal vents likely exist on Enceladus’ seafloor, suggesting that conditions there could be similar to those that gave rise to some of the first lifeforms on Earth. [Photos: Enceladus, Saturn’s Cold, Bright Moon]

A salty ocean

Astrobiologists regard the 314-mile-wide Enceladus as one of the solar system’s best bets to host life beyond Earth.

The satellite is covered by an icy shell, but it’s geologically quite active, as evidenced by the powerful geysers that blast continuously from its south polar region. These plumes contain significant amounts of water, which scientists think originates from a subsurface ocean.

Previous studies have suggested that this ocean is in contact with Enceladus’ rocky mantle, making possible all sorts of interesting chemical reactions. The new paper, published Wednesd May 6 in the journal Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta, further supports that notion.

The researchers studied mass-spectrometry measurements of the gases and ice grains in Enceladus’ plumes made by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft, which has been orbiting Saturn since 2004. The team used this information to develop a model that estimates the saltiness and pH of Enceladus’ plumes, and, by extension, the moon’s underground ocean.

The scientists determined that the ocean is likely salty and quite basic, with a pH of 11 or 12 — roughly equivalent to that of ammonia-based glass-cleaning solutions, but still within the tolerance range of some organisms on Earth. (The pH scale runs from 0 to 14. Seven is neutral; anything higher is basic, and anything lower is acidic.)

Enceladus’ subsurface sea contains dissolved sodium chloride (NaCl) — run-of-the-mill table salt — just as Earth’s oceans do, researchers said. But it’s full of sodium carbonate (Na2CO3), which is also known as washing soda or soda ash, as well.

So this alien water body is probably more similar to terrestrial “soda lakes,” such as ?Mono Lake in California, than it is to the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, study team members said.

An energy source in the dark depths

Such inferences shouldn’t dishearten astrobiologists; a variety of lifeforms thrive in Mono Lake, including brine shrimp and many different types of microbe. And the new study provides other reasons to be optimistic about Enceladus’ life-hosting potential, researchers said.

For example, the team’s model suggests that the subsurface ocean’s high pH is generated by a process called serpentization, in which certain kinds of metallic rocks from Enceladus’ upper mantle are transformed into new minerals (including serpentine, hence the name) via interactions with water.

In addition to raising pH, serpentization results in the production of molecular hydrogen (H2) — a potential source of chemical energy for any lifeforms that may exist in the underground sea, researchers said.

?”Molecular hydrogen can both drive the formation of organic compounds like amino acids that may lead to the origin of life, and serve as food for microbial life such as methane-producing organisms,” study lead author Christopher Glein, of the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington, said in a statement.

“As such, serpentinization provides a link between geological processes and biological processes,” he added. “The discovery of serpentinization makes Enceladus an even more promising candidate for a separate genesis of life.”

Sunlight probably doesn’t flow through Enceladus’ underground sea, but any microbes that exist there may thus have access to two different sources metabolism-supporting energy sources — molecular hydrogen and the heat provided by hydrothermal vents.



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Astronaut sees huge winter storm from space (Photos)

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    NASA astronaut Terry Virts took this photo of the January 2015 winter storm from the International Space Station. He posted the picture, which shows the storm churning near Boston, on Twitter on Jan. 28. (NASA Astronaut Terry Virts (@AstroTerry))

The monster winter storm that dumped loads of snow on the northeastern United States on Monday and Tuesday (Jan. 26 and 27) looked pretty beastly from 250 miles above the planet.

NASA astronaut Terry Virts, a member of the current Expedition 42 crew aboard the International Space Station, captured several dramatic photos of the storm Tuesday night, as it wheeled and churned over New England.

The blizzard “looks like a hurricane — last night she was just east of #Boston,” Virts tweeted about one image, which also features what looks to be a flash of lightning northeast of the storm.

Robotic eyes have also been keeping tabs on the winter storm, from much higher altitudes. For example, the Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership satellite, which is operated jointly by NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), looked on as the storm hammered the Northeast early Tuesday morning, when it was near peak intensity.

“The nighttime lights of the region were blurred by the high cloud tops associated with the most intense parts of the storm,” NASA officials wrote about the satellite image.

Other images of the winter storm — which is known as a nor’easter, because its winds are blowing primarily from the northeast — have come courtesy of NOAA’s GOES-East satellite.

GOES-East (short for Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite) captures infrared and visible-light cloud data, which is then overlain on views of land and sea taken by NASA’s Aqua and Terra Earth-observing satellites.

The winter storm, which meteorologists have been calling Juno, dumped up to 3 feet of snow on some parts of New England over the past few days. It is now petering out, but the U.S. National Weather Service says the Northeast will likely get another round of snowfall Friday (Jan. 30).

Indeed, parts of the planet look like a winter wonderland from orbit at the moment.

“In these winter time[s], sometimes it feels like the whole world is shrouded in cloud! ?#HelloEarth,” Virts’ Expedition 42 colleague, European Space Agency astronaut Sam Cristoforetti, posted on Twitter early Wednesday (Jan. 28), along with a stunning photo of the planet.


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