Russia, US could collaborate on mission to Venus

 

Jet Propulsion Lab/NASA/AP/FileView CaptionAbout video adsView Caption

After a pause following Russia’s annexation of Crimea, NASA and Russia’s space agency have resumed talks about the proposed Venera-D mission, which would orbit and land on Earth’s closest neighbor.

What Presidents Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin were discussing in that huddle at the G20 Summit earlier this week will likely remain a secret for some time. But could they have been talking about Venus?

While brinksmanship simmers over targeting the Islamic State in Syria and over the Kremlin’s actions in Ukraine, NASA has reportedly “resumed discussions” in October with Russia about a possible joint robot-led mission to Venus in the late 2020s, Spaceflight Now reports. The annexation of Crimea had put the potential venture on hold, though cooperation with the International Space Station continued, scientists involved in the talks said.

So far, NASA has only committed to a one-year feasibility study, which will culminate in a report for top officials in NASA and in Russia’s Moscow-based Space Research Institute (IKI). From there, officials will decide whether to pursue a cooperative mission to Venus, said Rob Landis, a program executive at NASA Headquarters, on Oct. 27, speaking from the Venus Exploration Analysis Group meeting in Washington.
The so-called “joint science definition team” reportedly convened in Moscow from Oct. 5-8, and scientists have slated two more in-person talks in Russia over the next year.
Scientists from the Russia’s IKI are heading up Venera-D, which is being considered as a chance to both orbit and land on Earth’s closest neighbor. NASA and IKI are also looking into whether the mission can accommodate a balloon that could to take wind and climate measurements from Venus’s scorching atmosphere.

Russia has a storied past with Venus, while for the US, this feasibility study comes as a new distraction from America’s first planetary love: Mars.

After nine failed tries at launching probes to Venus beginning in 1961, the Soviet Union’s Venera 7 landed successfully on the planet in 1970 – marking the first successful landing and communication from another planet. The subsequent Venera 8, 9, and 10 probes also all landed safely, with number 9 returning the first photos of the Venusian surface, Ars Technica reports.

With the Venera-D mission, which Russia first began planning in 2004, Russia aspires to land a more durable spacecraft on the surface of Venus, which is a hostile environment in the best of circumstances. The “D” in the mission stands for “dolgozhivushaya,” which means long-lasting. Venus’s average surface temperature can top 860 degrees Fahrenheit, and surface pressure is 92 times what it is on Earth.
IKI Director Lev Zelyony told Russian news Interfax that a joint flight will be possible after 2025.

By teaming up with NASA, Russia reportedly hopes to split the cost burden. NASA, for its part, has identified research objectives that an orbit and possible landing may accomplish. The agency’s Venus analysis group says its goal is to figure out how Venus diverged so dramatically from Earth, and relatedly, to further understand the “formation, evolution, and climate history on Venus.”

“We made a lot of progress,” said David Senske, a scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory who is the US co-chair of the Venera-D science definition team. “We heard a lot about what they had in mind. We’ve been told this is an IKI/Roscosmos endeavor, so they’re in the driver’s seat.”

NASA and IKI have a deadline: The joint team’s report is due Sept. 30, 2016. Then a decision will be made as to whether a Russia-US mission to Venus is a go.

AN ASTEROID MINING TEST VEHICLE JUST LAUNCHED FROM THE SPACE STATION

ROBO SPACE MINERS, DEPLOY!

Arkyd 3 Reflight Deploys From The ISS

NASA via Planetary Resources

Planetary Resources, a company that wants to mine asteroids for precious materials, has just launched a demonstration vehicle to test out its asteroid mining technologies. The breadbox-sized Arkyd 3 Reflight (A3R) is so-named because the original Arkyd 3 died a fiery death in the Orbital Sciences explosion in October. This one survived its launch to the International Space Station in April, and today, astronauts booted it out of an airlock to see how it fares in low Earth orbit.

The vehicle’s mission is to test out components that the company later plans to send into deep space to visit resource-rich asteroids, with the goal of extracting water, which can be broken down in to hydrogen and oxygen for rocket fuel, and valuable metals, including platinum.

Over the next 90 days or so, the little spacecraft will test out its avionics and control systems–it won’t actually be doing any drilling anytime soon. While low Earth orbit isn’t a perfect facsimile to deep space, it will give the components a taste of the harsh environments they would face on the job—including extremely cold temperatures, radiation, and the vacuum of space. By pinpointing the components’ weaknesses in low Earth orbit, the company can hopefully fix any problems before sending spacecraft further beyond Earth.

The test is going according to plan so far, a Planetary Resources spokesperson told Popular Science.

Arkyd 3

Planetary Resources

About the size of a loaf of bread, the Arkyd 3 Reflight launched today from the International Space Station.

Later this year, Planetary Resources plans to launch another demonstration vehicle, the Arkyd-6. Twice the size of the A3R, the A6 will test out avionics, attitude control, power, and communications systems. (Notably, the robo-prospectors will eventually use LASERS to communicate with Earth.)

Onboard the A6 will also be an infrared imaging system, which will eventually scan asteroids for water and minerals. A Planetary Resources press release says “the system will first test targeted areas of our own planet before being deployed to near-Earth asteroids on future missions.”

The Arkyd-6 Test Vehicle Will Launch Later This Year

Planetary Resources

Later on, the company will figure out the best way to extract the resources from asteroids. But here’s one way it could be done, from a Planetary Resources video:

 

China has had a telescope on the moon for the past two years

China has had a telescope on the moon for the past two years

China has had a telescope on the moon for the past two years
Point a telescope at the moon, and you might just see one looking back. Chinese researchers have reported that their robotic telescope, the first of its kind, has been operating flawlessly ever since it landed on the moon in 2013.

The 15-centimetre telescope is mounted on the Chang’e 3 lander, which touched down on the lunar surface in December 2013. Chang’e 3 (pictured above) carried the Yutu rover, which repeatedly struggled to survive the lunar night and ceased working in March this year – but the lander is still going strong.

The telescope sees in ultraviolet light, making it particularly suited for observations that aren’t possible here on Earth. “There is no atmosphere on the moon, so unlike Earth, the ultraviolet light from celestial objects can be detected on the moon,” says Jing Wang of the National Astronomical Observatories in Beijing, China, who is in charge of the telescope. And since the moon rotates 27 times more slowly than the Earth, the scope can stay fixed on the same star for a dozen days without interruption, he says.

Snapping Earth
In a paper published this week, Wang and his colleagues detail the first 18 months of the telescope’s operation, during which it has observed for 2000 hours and monitored 40 stars. The team also captured a picture of the Pinwheel galaxy, shown below.

China has had a telescope on the moon for the past two years

Astronauts on the Apollo 16 mission had a manually operated UV telescope, which they used to take pictures of Earth, stars and the Large Magellanic Cloud. But the Chinese telescope is the first to be operated remotely from Earth.

That’s a challenge, because the moon is a hostile environment, full of charged and abrasive lunar dust that can get into equipment and destroy electronics, as Yutu’s troubles demonstrate. To counter this, the telescope is stowed within Chang’e 3 during sunrise and sunset on the moon, when dust is thought to be at its worst, and has survived much longer than its expected one year life. Wang says the scope is still working today, and the team are awaiting a decision to continue its mission past the end of this year.

Journal reference: arxiv.org/abs/1510.01435

Image information (from top): The Chang’e 3 lander (credit: Xinhua/Corbis); Picture of the Pinwheel galaxy captured by the telescope on the moon lander (credit: Chinese Academy of Sciences/The Bruce Murray Space Image Library/The Planetary Society)

By Jacob Aron

NASA’s wild new plan to hunt for life on Mars would test SpaceX in ways never done before

Jessica Orwig

spacexSpaceX Photos on Flickr

There are 99 Mars rocks on Earth, but they’re not the kind that scientists need in order to resolve the all-too-intriguing  mystery of whether there is — or once was — life on Mars.

So far, all efforts to answer this question have painted a picture of an ancient Mars once covered in water with a thicker atmosphere and warmer temperatures — a world similar to Earth. But no signs of past or present life have been found, yet.

That’s why a team of scientists at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California have come up with a wild notion to do what has never been done before: transport rocks currently on Mars to Earth.

NASA has been seriously considering a sample-return mission like this for a while, ranking it as the highest-priority big-budget mission for the future in the U.S. National Research Center’s 2013 decadal survey. The return mission that NASA envisioned in 2013 would cost $6 billion, but the team at NASA’s Ames Research Center thinks they might have found a cheaper way.

Enter the “Red Dragon” mission, which would see NASA team up with Elon Musk’s company SpaceX, once again, for an epic mission of engineering firsts, including the first time anyone will have launched a vehicle off the surface of Mars.

spaceXSpaceX Photos

The project would launch a modified version of SpaceX’s current Dragon spacecraft to the Red Planet by as early as 2022, hence the project name “Red Dragon.”

The project is “technically feasible with the use of these emerging commercial technologies, coupled with technologies that already exist,” NASA senior systems aerospace engineer Andy Gonzales told NBC News.

Why we need to get Mars rocks back to Earth

Right now, the only Mars rocks available to scientist are not really rocks at all. They’re meteorites that were flung into space by a powerful impact and later plummeted to Earth at blazing speeds of more than 160,000 miles per hour.

However, this sort of rough, bumpy ride might have destroyed any valuable evidence within the rocks that could point to past life on Mars. And while NASA’s Curiosity rover is currently drilling into the Martian surface in search for signs of ancient alien life, it has come up empty-handed.

To determine, once and for all, whether Mars once harbored a thriving ecosystem on its watery and warm former self, scientists need to get their hands on Martian rocks that are sitting on the surface right now.

mars waterESO/M. KornmesserIllustration of what Mars might have looked like covered in water billions of years ago.

“Red Dragon” would follow NASA’s Mars 2020 mission, scheduled to launch a rover similar to Curiosity to Mars in 2020 — if the project is fully funded.

The Dragon spacecraft would then retrieve the samples taken by the Mars 2020 rover, store them in a Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV), which would then launch the samples back to Earth, as described in the graphic below:

red dragon mission conceptNASA Ames Research Center/Red Dragon Internal Study Team

Gonzales and his team have not approached SpaceX yet to see if Elon Musk and his company would actually be interested in such a mission. First, the team needs to get NASA to approve the concept and fund the mission, which was first proposed last year.

Despite no funding in site, Gonzales is still actively pushing for the project, which he discussed last week during a NASA Future In-Space Operations working group. Gonzales told NBC News that his team has not estimated the total cost of “Red Dragon” but they suspect it will cost less than NASA’s $6 billion mission envisioned in the U.S. National Research Center’s 2013 decadal survey.

Stunning images reveal SpaceX’s revolutionary approach to landing on Mars

Elon Musk’s private company SpaceX has big plans to usher in a new era of reusable rockets that could send the first humans to Mars and return them home.

And as mind-blowing as these innovative ideas are, the video animations and illustrations that bring Space X’s goals to life are equally impressive.

But these animations and illustrations aren’t just fiction and propaganda: They are a way for SpaceX to envision the future and make it a reality.

For example, in 2011 SpaceX released a videoshowing how they were going to re-land a rocket booster after launching it to space — something that had never been done before. And in 2015, SpaceX began attempting to land their rockets exactly how they had envisioned in the video.

(Neither of the two attempted landings, so far, have succeeded.)

And if you check out the latest photos and illustrations on SpaceX’s Flickr account, you’ll see something that is even cooler than landing a rocket on Earth: Landing a spacecraft on Mars. And judging from the illustrations, SpaceX plans to land on Mars using a super-simple approach that has never been tried before.

This is SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft, which is not designed to carry humans, sitting on the Red Planet:

spaceXSpaceX Photos

SpaceX will first send its Dragon capsule to Mars before transporting a crew on board its Crew Dragon spacecraft, which is designed to carry seven astronauts at a time and is currently being tested by SpaceX for its debut launch, scheduled for 2017.

This unmanned Dragon capsule has been making trips to the International Space Station since 2010. But to get to Mars, which is 560,000 times farther, the Dragon will need to ride a more powerful rocket than the Falcon 9, which it takes to the ISS.

That rocket is SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy, illustrated below, that is scheduled to launch out of Kennedy Space Center for the first time next year.

spaceXSpaceX on Flickr

However, this monster rocket will only take Dragon so far. Getting to Mars is easy compared to landing on it because the Martian atmosphere is a tricky beast to control.

The Martian atmosphere is about 1,000 times thinner than Earth’s, so simple parachutes won’t slow a vehicle down enough to land safely.

But that atmosphere is still thick enough to generate a great deal of heat from friction against a spacecraft.Therefore, to land on Mars you have to have a spacecraft with a heat shield that can withstand temperature of 1600 degrees Fahrenheit.

Luckily, Dragon’s heat shield can protect it against temperatures of over 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit, so plummeting toward Mars, illustrated below, shouldn’t be a problem heat-wise.

spacexSpaceX Photos on Flickr

But there’s still the problem of slowing down. Although gravity on Mars is about 1/3 of what it is on Earth, the vehicle is still plummeting toward the ground at over 1,000 miles per hour after entering Mars’s atmosphere. If it were to hit the ground at those speeds, you’d have a disaster.

The way that SpaceX aims to deal with this tricky problem is to use the thrusters on board the Dragon spacecraft to first redirect its momentum from downward to sideways, as illustrated below, thus reducing its speed:

spacexSpaceX Photos on Flickr

And then, as the spacecraft continues to plunge toward the surface, it will fire its thrusters one final time for a soft, vertical touch down:

spacexSpaceX Photo on Flickr

This sort of landing is unlike anything that anyone has ever tried before, but you have to admit that Dragon looks pretty great on Mars if it ever manages to get there:

spaceXSpaceX Photo on Flickr

The last major Mars landing was NASA’s Curiosity rover in 2012. This landing was a huge success but extremely complicated that involved half a dozen steps that, if not completed perfectly, would end in disaster. NASA dubbed the landing process “7 minutes of terror” because that’s how long it took to enter the atmosphere and land.

SpaceX has not announced when it plans to first send a Dragon spacecraft to Mars. However, there is a project called “Red Dragon” that NASA is considering and would involve sending a Dragon to Mars to retrieve samples collected by NASA’s Mars 2020 rover and then return them to Earth. This project has not yet been selected for funding by NASA but if funded could launch as early as 2022.

  • Jessica Orwig

 

Does oxygen necessarily mean aliens?

Astrobiologists find that the presence of oxygen in a planet’s atmosphere may not necessarily mean that life exists there.

By Eva Botkin-Kowacki

Scientists and E.T. enthusiasts may have to rethink an allegedly telltale sign that a planet has life.

The presence of oxygen, specifically O2 , in a planet’s atmosphere has long been thought to be a near-certain signal that there are, or at least were, living organisms engaging in photosynthesis on the planet. But new research suggests that oxygen can exist in large quantities without being produced by living things.

A study published Thursday in Scientific Reports found that some planets could have “abiotic” oxygen, produced through a a photocatalytic reaction of titanium oxide

China aims to be first to land probe on moon’s far side

Image result for far side of the moon

BEIJING (AP) — China’s space program says it plans to attempt the first-ever landing of a lunar probe on the moon’s far side.

 

Zou Yongliao from the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ moon exploration department told state broadcaster CCTV on Wednesday that the Chang’e 4 mission is planned for sometime before 2020.

 

Zou said the objective of the mission would be to study geological conditions on the moon’s far side, also known as the dark side. Radio transmissions from Earth are unable to reach the far side, making it an excellent location to place a radio telescope for use by astronomers.

 

China’s next lunar mission is scheduled for 2017, when it will attempt to land an unmanned spaceship on the moon before returning to Earth with samples..

 

NASA IS SERIOUSLY CONSIDERING TERRAFORMING PART OF THE MOON WITH ROBOTS

By Kelsey D. Atherton
Lunar Transformer Concept

Lunar Transformer Concept

NASA

Announced yesterday, NASA is moving ahead with funding to study several ambitious space research projects, including one that would transform an inhospitable lunar crater into a habitat for robots — and eventually, human explorers. Located on the moon’s South Pole, Shackleton Crater isn’t just prime real estate for terraforming experiments, it’s Optimus Prime real estate. NASA wants to fill the crater with solar-powered transformers, and then use the fleet of robots to turn the crater into a miniature hospitable environment.

Shackleton Crater is uniquely qualified as a location for terraforming in the small scale. Named after the famous explorer of Earth’s own south pole, the crater covers about 130 square miles, or roughly twice the size of Washington, DC. It is surrounded on all sides by peaks that rise over 14,000 feet above the surface of the crater. Inside this moon-bowl, scientists have already found water, which is essential for any future human habitation.

Before the humans come the robots. To function, robots need electrical power and warmth, and with the right equipment, the sun can provide both, with a little help. In darkness, the crater is about 100 degrees Kelvin, or -280 fahrenheit, but a series of solar reflectors could capture light from the peaks on the crater rim and then reflect it down into the crater, warming and fueling solar-powered rovers at the same time.

These reflectors would be carried around the crater rim by other rovers, unfolding and transforming into useful shapes when needed. A single reflector 130 feet in diameter could send light over six miles into the crater, powering a rover (or a fleet of several Curiousity-sized rovers) with up to one megawatt of energy and preventing them from freezing. Thanks to their height, there is always at least one point on the peaks on the crater rim that receives sunlight, so work could be done continuously in the crater.

Should this plan all work out, several transforming robots with reflectors would work on the edge of the crater, beaming sun in, while robots inside the crater built something close to an “oasis” on the moon. Or at least, an oasis for lunar robots.

The project was awarded in NASA’s Phase II funding, which provides up to $500,000 for two-year-long studies, so the next task is designing a workable reflector that fits into a cube slightly larger than three feet each side, weighing less than 220 pounds, and that unfolds to cover 10,700 square feet. If it all works out, the robots shall inherit the moon.

[NASA]

German space researchers reboot effort to launch hypersonic space plane

by Sean Gallagher

Goal: 100 passengers, 1-hour intercontinental flights, with test flights by mid-2030s.


From Europe to Australia in 90 minutes—but meal service would be problematic.

The Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt (DLR), Germany’s aerospace research center, has renewed decade-old plans for a suborbital passenger space plane that could fly from Europe to Australia in under 90 minutes. The rocket-powered SpaceLiner, originally conceptualized as a 50-passenger hypersonic airliner, has now been given new urgency and direction with a roadmap for flights within the next 20 years, SpaceLiner project lead Martin Sippel told Aviation Week at last month’s American Institute of Aerodynamics and Astronautics’ Space Planes and Hypersonics Conference in Glasgow. Sippel spoke at the conference, presenting on SpaceLiner’s technical progress and the program’s mission definition—which now includes potentially delivering satellites and other payloads to space.

In addition to providing a fairly exclusive passenger service—which would target an extremely small percentage of the international travel market—the goal of the program is to spur large-scale production of reusable rocket engines and booster vehicles that would reduce the cost of other space missions. “The point-to-point passenger market already exists and is growing,” Sippel told Aviation Week. “We have several hundred million passengers traveling intercontinental distances each year. But even if the share will only be 0.2 percent… from a space perspective that’s a potentially huge impact. We could increase hundredfold the number of launches and, as it is a reusable vehicle designed for between 150 and 300 flights, you have serial production of engines. If you have 11 engines per vehicle then you would build 2,000 engines per year or so. That’s a huge production run, and that was the motivation.”

The DLR SpaceLiner would launch upright with the assistance of an external booster, in a fashion similar to NASA’s now-retired Space Shuttle. The booster stage, equipped with its own wings, would be captured after use by a tow aircraft and then be released for an autonomous landing. The main vehicle would glide in a low orbit trajectory and then land like a normal aircraft at its destination, reaching a maximum speed of 4.3 miles per second. The goal size of the space plane is a 100-passenger vehicle, with the passenger compartment capable of ejection and flight on its own as an emergency measure. The reusable booster stage could also be used to ferry other vehicles to space, including launch systems for satellites to be placed in higher orbit.

The development of a flying prototype of the SpaceLiner could cost as much as $33 billion and would require multiple design reviews “before you build the first hardware in 2030,” Sippel said. Testing would involve up to six prototype vehicles, and actual commercial service wouldn’t begin until 2040. So please, don’t start calling Lufthansa to book a flight.


The Pope’s Lead Astronomer Says Aliens Exist But They Probably Aren’t Catholics

BY TRACE WILLIAM COWEN

Image result for Are will alone

Perhaps the biggest component of the “Are we alone in the universe?” debate, for some, is the resulting dismantling of religious institutions here on Earth following inarguable proof that such institutions are decidedly anti-universe. For the religiously inclined, the question arises: Would inhabitants of another planet, likely within another universe entirely, even have knowledge of the respective god of one respective religion or another? The answer, of course, is a relatively firm “No.” Now, just three short centuries after the Catholic Church violently condemned Galileo for suggesting that Earth wasn’t the center of the universe, the Vatican Powers That Be are joining the realistic side of this debate.

Following NASA’s announcement of a possible Earth-like sister planet, Father José Gabriel Funes once again expressed his updated thoughts on the possibility of extraterrestrial life. “It is probable there was life and perhaps a form of intelligent life,” says Funes, director of the Vatican Observatory in Rome. “[Though] I don’t think we’ll ever meet a Mr Spock.” When pressed about the inherent contradictions of such an expression from a person of such devout Christian faith, Funes gives an admirably forthright response. “The Bible is not a scientific book. If we look for scientific responses to our questions in the Bible, we are making a mistake.”

Funes also believes, in a humorous act of deflection, that this theoretical extraterrestrial life likely aren’t Catholics, wouldn’t have the slightest clue as to who Jesus is, and most definitely haven’t experienced similar events of supposed religious importance. “The discovery of intelligent life does not mean there’s another Jesus,” offers Funes. “The Incarnation of the son of God is a unique event in the history of humanity of the universe.” That’s perfect, isn’t it? A powerful religious figure admits to the increasing likelihood of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe (i.e. aliens), but in the same breath reinforces the outmoded belief that humans are the center of everything.

Sorry, aliens. Please don’t visit us until we have our shit together.

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