Virgin Galactic Planning to Show Off Next Spaceship in February 2016

Virgin Galactic is already working on the new version of its SpaceShipTwo space plane, Richard Branson tells Mashable, and will be ready to show the world its progress early next year. The Virgin boss expects that the new craft — the first shown off by the company since a tragic accident claimed the lives of one of its pilots in 2014 — will be unveiled in February 2016, with test flights to begin soon after. “The last 12 months everyone’s worked incredibly hard,” Branson said in an interview. “We’re very much back on track now.”

The news comes a year and three days after a Virgin Galactic pilot Michael Alsbury was killed during a test flight of the company’s SpaceShipTwo craft. Another pilot, Peter Siebold, was seriously injured in the crash, and Branson said that for 48 hours after the accident he “really wasn’t sure whether we should carry on.” But Branson reaffirmed his commitment to space travel earlier this year. “When this story is told in years to come, I believe alongside the bravery of Mike and the incredible tale of Pete’s survival, will stand the story of the commitment, loyalty, and passion of the world’s first private astronauts,” the billionaire wrote in January. “Virgin Galactic goes on, with an unwavering commitment to safety and a renewed sense of purpose.”

Read more at: Verge

Russia Wants to Send Monkeys to Mars and Women to the Moon

The Russian space agency has announced plans for space missions through 2029

It looks like the space race is back on. Over the last few months, space agencies around the world have announced plans to send all sorts of missions back to the Moon and out towards Mars. Now Russia is getting in on the game, announcing a timeline of operations spanning the next 15 years that includes sending trained monkeys to Mars in 2017 and testing a women-only crew for a future Moon mission in 2029.

Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, has had a busy few weeks, first announcing a new partnership with the European Space Agency to send a lunar rover to search for water at the Moon’s south pole by 2020. But now, Roscosmos has announced it wants to go a bit further first by sending a team of trained rhesus monkeys to the red planet, Julienne Roman reports for Tech Times. Right now, a squad of future monkey cosmonauts are training three hours a day at the Institute of Biomedical Problems in Moscow, learning how to operate controls and solve simple math problems.

Read more at: Smithsonian Magazine

The Active Sun: US Unveils Plan to Deal with Space Weather

The U.S. government is getting more serious about dealing with the dangers posed by powerful sun storms.

On Thursday (Oct. 29), the White House released two documents that together lay out the nation’s official plan for mitigating the negative impacts of solar flaresand other types of “space weather,” which have the potential to wreak havoc on power grids and other key infrastructure here on Earth.

The new “National Space Weather Strategy” outlines the basic framework the federal government will pursue to better understand, predict and recover from space-weather events, while the “National Space Weather Action Plan” details specific activities intended to help achieve this broad goal.

Read more at: Live Science

Super Strypi Rocket Packed with Cubesats Fails in Debut

An experimental rocket for small satellites took off from Hawaii on its debut mission at about 5:45 p.m. local time Nov. 3, roared toward the sky and then failed less than a minute into flight, the U.S. Air Force said.

The debut of the rail-launched Super Strypi rocket was the key feature of the Operationally Responsive Space (ORS)-4 mission, which carried 13 experimental satellites.

“The ORS-4 mission on an experimental Super Strypi launch vehicle failed in mid-flight after liftoff at 5:45 p.m. Hawaii Standard Time (7:45 p.m. PST/10:45 p.m. EST) today from the Pacific Missile Range Facility off Barking Sands, Kauai, Hawaii,” the Air Force said in a brief statement early Nov. 4. “Additional information will be released as it becomes available.”

Read more at: Space News

Traveling Through Space? Don’t Forget Sleeping Pills and Skin Cream

If you are planning to take the long trip to Mars, don’t forget to pack sleeping pills and skin cream. A new study published in the November 2015 issue of The FASEB Journal, is the first-ever examination of the medications used by astronauts on long-duration missions to the International Space Station. As one might expect, the study shows that much of the medicine taken by astronauts in space relates to the unusual and confined microgravity environment in which they work or to the actual work that they are doing to complete their missions. Among these medications, the report shows that the use of sleep aids and incidence of skin rashes were higher than expected. These findings not only help the world’s space agencies anticipate needs for future ISS inhabitants, but also the day-to-day medical needs of those who may take the trip to Mars.

“We hope that this study will help NASA to prepare for astronauts’ medical needs on long-duration spaceflight missions,” said Virginia E. Wotring, Ph.D., a researcher involved in the work from the Division of Space Life Sciences at Universities Space Research Association in Houston, Texas. “Knowing what medications to pack is especially important before starting an exploration mission that may last three years.”

Read more at: Eureka alert

BAE Systems to Invest £20.6M in Reaction Engines on SABRE Collaboration

BAE Systems plc and Reaction Engines Limited (‘Reaction Engines’) today announced a strategic investment by BAE Systems and a working collaboration to accelerate Reaction Engines’ development of SABRE™ – a new aerospace engine class that combines both jet and rocket technologies with the potential to revolutionise hypersonic flight and the economics of space access. The transaction is subject to the approval of Reaction Engines’ shareholders.

Under the terms of the agreement, BAE Systems will invest £20.6 million in Reaction Engines to acquire 20 per cent of its share capital and also enter into a working partner relationship. The working partnership will draw on BAE Systems’ extensive aerospace technology development and project management expertise and will provide Reaction Engines with access to critical industrial, technical and capital resources to progress towards the demonstration of a ground based engine – a key milestone in the development of the technology. Under the agreement BAE Systems will enter into a preferred supplier relationship with Reaction Engines in certain agreed areas and will have representation on the board of Reaction Engines.

Read more at: Rocketeers

Engineers are Developing Robotic Spacecraft to Assist Satellite Repairs in Orbit

NASA is developing and demonstrating technologies to service and repair satellites in distant orbits. Robotic spacecraft — likely operated with joysticks by technicians on the ground — would carry out the hands-on maneuvers, not human beings using robotic and other specialized tools, as was the case for spacecraft like the low-Earth-orbiting Hubble Space Telescope.

This photograph looks closely at one of the tools that could be used for satellite servicing in the future: the Visual Inspection Poseable Invertebrate Robot (VIPIR), a robotic, articulating borescope equipped with a second motorized, zoom-lens camera that would help mission operators who need robotic eyes to troubleshoot anomalies, investigate micrometeoroid strikes, and carry out teleoperated satellite-repair jobs. NASA successfully demonstrated VIPIR’s capabilities earlier this year.

Read more at: Scitechdaily

Solar Storm Knocks Out Flight Control Systems in Sweden

Aviation officials say a solar storm knocked out the air traffic control systems in Sweden on Wednesday, prompting them to close the country’s airspace for more than an hour.

The civil aviation authority said the solar storm created disturbances in the Earth’s magnetic field, which affected radar installations in southern Sweden. No such problems were reported in neighboring countries.

Agency spokesman Per Froberg said flights disappeared from radar screens in Swedish air traffic control towers during the blackout, which lasted about an hour until 5:30 p.m. (1630 GMT). Froberg said it was unclear why the impact was so severe, adding the last time something similar happened in Sweden was in 1999.

Read more at: Phys.org

‘Magic’ Plant Discovery could Lead to Growing Food in Space

QUT scientists have discovered the gene that will open the door for space-based food production. Professor Peter Waterhouse, a plant geneticist at QUT, discovered the gene in the ancient Australian native tobacco plant Nicotiana benthamiana, known as Pitjuri to indigenous Aboriginal tribes.

Professor Waterhouse made the discovery while tracing the history of the Pitjuri plant, which for decades has been used by geneticists as a model plant upon which to test viruses and vaccines. “This plant is the ‘laboratory rat’ of the molecular plant world,” he said, “we think of it as a magical plant with amazing properties.

Professor Waterhouse, a molecular geneticist with QUT’s Centre for Tropical Crops and Biocommodities, said scientists could use this discovery to investigate other niche or sterile growing environments where plants were protected from disease – and space was an intriguing option. “So the recent film The Martian, which involved an astronaut stranded on Mars growing potatoes while living in an artificial habitat, had a bit more science fact than fiction than people might think,” he said.

Professor Waterhouse said the team’s findings also have implications for future genetic research back here on Earth.

Read more at: QUT News

Blue Suits and Red Ink

In the late 1960s, Dr. John McLucas served as undersecretary of the Air Force and wore a dual hat as Director of the super-secret National Reconnaissance Office (NRO). McLucas had been involved in numerous air and space programs over many years, and he headed the NRO when the Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL) had run into major funding and schedule problems, resulting in Richard Nixon canceling it in summer 1969. MOL had been a big project officially approved by Lyndon Johnson in 1965. According to his 2006 memoir Reflections of a Technocrat (written with Kenneth J. Alnwick and Lawrence R. Benson), McLucas was not in favor of MOL and did not fight its cancellation. In the mid-1990s, in response to a question, McLucas remarked that his problem with MOL was that “It was always one year and one billion dollars from being ready.”

In the past couple of weeks, the National Reconnaissance Office declassified a large number of MOL documents, including details on its once highly-classified DORIAN optical system. One of the documents is an undated “program chronology” that was clearly drafted in early 1968. The chronology contains not only the cost of the MOL program at various times of its life, but also the schedule. Equally fascinating is an indication of the program elements at various times.

Read more at: Space Review

Mars has had Rock-Eating Acid Fog Rolling Over its Surface

Rocks on Mars show signs of having been dissolved, with the most likely culprit being an acid fog created by vapors from volcanoes, scientists say. Scarce, thin water vapor could be combining with the acidic gases from the volcanoes to form a corrosive fog clinging to rocks on the shaded side of hills, they say.

A similar phenomenon occurs on Earth with so-called Hawaiian “vog,” a corrosive volcanic smog resulting in gases released from the Kilauea volcano. “A lot of people have talked about weathering that would occur on Mars,” says planetary scientist Ralph Milliken of Brown University, although he notes such erosion would take millions of years in the thin, dry atmosphere of Mars.

Read more at: Techtimes

Using a Tablet Computer in Space

When the Space Age began, there was no such thing as a “graphical user interface.”  Astronauts interacted with their electronics using only knobs and toggle switches. It was a different time.

Fast forward to 2015.

The knobs and switches of the 1950s have been replaced by a glass cockpit, where the majority of commanding is done through software controls. Old-fashioned twisting and flipping may soon be replaced by a complex combination of taps, swipes, and finger-tip swirls.

“Many tasks performed inside a modern spacecraft will involve fine motor skills such as typing or interacting with a computer touchscreen,” says Kritina Holden, Principal Investigator for the Fine Motor Skills experiment now underway on the International Space Station. “In the future, astronauts will use portable computers for many tasks, including maintenance, training, medical treatment, science, time lining, and scheduling.”

It is well known that microgravity can have a detrimental effect on the human body—muscles atrophy, bones weaken, and the immune system doesn’t function properly. Are fine motor skills affected as well? The Fine Motor Skills experiment aims to find out.

Read more at: NASA

Scientists Found Potentially Pathogenic Bacteria Onboard the ISS

Analyzing the composition of dust samples from the ISS biologists found potentially pathogenic bacteria able to cause serious diseases under conditions of zero-gravity.

Before going to the ISS all cosmonauts and astronauts pass strict medical check; in the framework of these procedures their bodies are cleaned of all bacteria both dangerous and harmless. Such measures are necessary since the scientists cannot predict how these bacteria will behave under conditions of weightlessness, carbon dioxide surplus and space rays and how cosmonauts’ immune system weakened by space flight factors will react to it.

Kasthuri Venkateswaran and his colleagues from NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, USA, tried to answer this question comparing the bacteria from real ISS to those from space life simulators based on Earth.

Read more at: Russian Space News

Countdown on to Solve Risks of Mars Missions

Nasa needs to get cracking if it wants to keep its astronauts alive and well on missions to Mars, according to an in-house report issued yesterday.

In an extensive audit, Nasa’s inspector-general office looked at the space agency’s overall effort to keep astronauts safe during lengthy space missions – especially trips to Mars, currently targeted for the 2030s. Among the top health hazards for three-year, round-trip Mars missions: space radiation that could cause cancer, central nervous system damage, cataracts or infertility; extreme isolation, which could lead to psychological problems; and prolonged weightlessness, already known to weaken bones, muscles and vision.

There’s also the issue of limited amounts and types of medicine and food, the latter potentially leading to weight loss and malnutrition. Inspector-General Paul Martin acknowledged that Nasa is making progress in identifying and managing these health risks.

Read more at: Nz Herald

NASA Must Take More Care about Rocket Parts After Accident

Independent NASA accident investigators said the U.S. space agency should “perform a greater level of due diligence for major system components” in rockets that deliver cargo to the International Space Station following a 2014 explosion.

The recommendation came in the investigators’ report on the explosion of Orbital ATK’s Antares rocket that destroyed a load of cargo for the space station. It may spur calls for more oversight of NASA’s use of commercial contracts to deliver cargo – and soon crew members – to the space station.

NASA shared development costs for those programs with its commercial partners, while earlier rockets were fully government-funded. Separate accident investigations are underway to determine the cause of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket failure on June 28, 2015, which claimed another load of station cargo.

Read more at: Reuters

OneWeb Gets (Slide) Decked by Competitor at CASBAA

The president of satellite fleet operator ABS continued his efforts to rally other operators of geostationary-orbit satellites against OneWeb Ltd., the startup planning a fleet of 720 satellites in low Earth orbit to provide Ku-band broadband services worldwide.

Thomas Choi asserts that OneWeb may have the best intentions but will nonetheless interfere with the Ku-band satellites in geostationary orbit, especially around the equator. Speaking Oct. 27  at the Cable & Satellite Broadcasting Association of Asia (CASBAA) convention in Hong Kong, Choi presented his company’s latest technical assessment (reproduced below).

Luxembourg-based SES endorsed Choi’s findings.

Read more at: Space News

SpaceX President Downplays Commitment To Building Broadband Constellation

SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell on Oct. 27 downplayed the company’s 4,000-satellite broadband Internet constellation, saying the project remained “very speculative” pending a deeper assessment of its business case.

Speaking in Hong Kong at the Cable & Satellite Broadcasting Association of Asia (CASBAA) convention, Shotwell said SpaceX’s focus remains on the launch side of its business. Shotwell said SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, which failed in June during a cargo mission to the International Space Station, would return to flight in December.

Read more at: Space News

World View to Begin Testing for Human Private Spaceflights

World View, the commercial spaceflight company, has successfully completed a major milestone test flight this past weekend, keeping the company on track to meet its 2017 goal for private flights with passengers to the edge of space. This test flight carried a scaled down, replica spacecraft to a final altitude of 100,475 feet (30624 meters), successfully marking the transition from sub-scale testing to a historical next stage of development – full scale testing.

This sub-scale test flight demonstrated foundational technologies necessary for regular, operational flight, and proves that commercial flight to the edge of space via high-altitude balloon will serve as a viable and major form of transport in the emerging private space travel industry. The flight launched from Page, Arizona, one of the locations from where World View plans to fly Voyagers to the edge of space.

Source: World View

Scientists Reveal New Lithium-Oxygen Battery Design

Using a highly porous graphene electrode, scientists have developed a lab-based demonstrator of a lithium-oxygen battery which has higher capacity, increased energy efficiency and improved stability over previous designs.

Scientists have developed a working laboratory demonstrator of a lithium-oxygen battery which has very high energy density, is more than 90% efficient, and, to date, can be recharged more than 2000 times, showing how several of the problems holding back the development of these devices could be solved.

Lithium-oxygen, or lithium-air, batteries have been touted as the ‘ultimate’ battery due to their theoretical energy density, which is ten times that of a lithium-ion battery. Such a high energy density would be comparable to that of gasoline – and would enable an electric car with a battery that is a fifth the cost and a fifth the weight of those currently on the market to drive from London to Edinburgh on a single charge.

Read more at: Scitechdaily

PTK Spacecraft to Feature Improved Docking Port

Unlike the Soyuz, where the docking port is discarded and burns up in the atmosphere along with the habitation module of the spacecraft at the end of each mission, the new-generation PTK spacecraft will carry its docking mechanism on the descent vehicle, VA, which was designed for at least 10 flights. As a result, the new version of the veteran drogue-and-cone mechanism would have to be certified to endure the reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere with a second cosmic velocity (11.2 kilometers per second) upon the return from lunar missions with the rest of PTK’s descent vehicle.

In August 2015, RKK Energia, the prime contractor in the PTK project, released specifications for a new docking port intended for the PTK NP spacecraft, which would enable the linkup of vehicles as heavy as 30 tons and equipped with any available rendezvous system. The new design promised to reduce loads during docking by as much as 30 percent. The new port also provided a wider transfer tunnel for the crew, which was previously available only on large space station modules.

Read more at: Russian Spaceweb

Developing Tomorrow’s Space War Fighter

To date, space has been a fairly unchallenged environment to work in. The threat, however, is growing. As General Hyten stated, the priority of Air Force Space Command (AFSPC) is to continue to provide operational capability, even in a threatened environment. As the chance of a war in space intensifies, developing AFSPC personnel who are equipped to “win tomorrow’s fight” will be increasingly necessary. Tomorrow’s space war fighter will need to possess a broad range of skills to deal with potential threats to our space systems. As we move forward, our focus needs to move from operating satellites in an uncontested setting to ensuring that satellite effects are available even in a congested, contested, and competitive space environment. To develop space war fighters who are educated, experienced, and prepared to win tomorrow’s fight, AFSPC should contract out day-to-day satellite command and control and shift the space operator’s focus to defending our nation’s space assets.

Read more at: Airpower

Russia Deploys Suicide Devices into Space

It seems like Russia has violated an unwritten rule to have no weapons in space. However, it’s not just Russia that has been lately accused of ignoring the rule. China and the U.S. have also behaved badly in space.

But Russia is the focus of the attention since three of its suicide weapons devices can smash into othermilitary satellites and other space objects and destroy them. Russia neither announced the launch of its satellites, nor did it properly register them with the United Nations, which standard procedure requires nations to do. But it’s not just destroying other space objects that worries other countries but also that the space aircraft could be used as weapons.

Read more at: Valuewalk