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Astronaut requirements changing rapidly with private spaceflyers, long-duration missions

Being an astronaut of the 2020s will be completely different than it was for any astronaut that came before, a panel of spaceflyers told the virtual International Astronautical Congress Wednesday (Oct. 14). The spaceflight environment is rapidly changing due to several different factors. The International Space Station (ISS) is pushing harder into commercialization and will soon be welcoming more and larger space agency crews on commercial crew vehicles while bringing in a few private astronauts. Meanwhile, NASA and its international partners are preparing for the next phase of human spaceflight missions after the ISS, which they hope will include moon landings in 2024 and eventual astronaut excursions to Mars. Also in the next few years, private companies such as Virgin Galactic hope to send paying astronauts on suborbital flights, in a bid to open up space to more people besides professional astronauts.

NASA astronaut Ricky Arnold flew a space shuttle mission and the long-duration Expedition 55 mission in 2009 and 2018, respectively. It was an era when training in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) became especially important as astronauts learned more generic “expeditionary behavior” for long-duration missions, he said, rather than focusing on a few small specific skills. The newer shift in astronaut training, he added, is getting ready for the proliferation of new spacecraft — including SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, Boeing’s Starliner and NASA’s Orion spacecraft. This will add on to the Russian Soyuz spacecraft that currently ferries astronauts to space. “There is the potential for four different vehicles you have to figure out how to fly,” Arnold said, “and it’ll be interesting to see what the training team does with the next class of astronauts that will come on.” The skillset will change even further when private astronauts come on board the ISS or work on other spacecraft, said Michael López-Alegría, who flew three space shuttle missions and the long-duration Expedition 14 in the 1990s and 2000s. “We’re entering a new realm where you don’t have to be a professional astronaut to fly to space; it’s the era of democratizing that access,” López-Alegría said. “It’s very difficult right now, because the seats are few. And as a result, they’re quite expensive to go. But I’m quite confident that these prices will come down, just like [for aviation] in the 1920s and 1930s. Commercial aviation was only something that was reachable by the very, very wealthy.”

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Elon Musk says SpaceX’s 1st Starship trip to Mars could fly in 4 years

SpaceX is almost ready to start building a permanent human settlement on Mars with its massive Starship rocket. The private spaceflight company is on track to launch its first uncrewed mission to Mars in as little as four years from now, SpaceX’s founder and CEO Elon Musk said Friday (Oct. 16) at the International Mars Society Convention. “I think we have a fighting chance of making that second Mars transfer window,” Musk said in a discussion with Mars Society founder Robert Zubrin. That window Musk referred to is a launch opportunity that arises every 26 months for mission to Mars. NASA, China and the United Arab Emirates all launched missions to mars in July of this year. The next window opens in 2022 with Musk referring to the 2024 Mars launch opportunity.

The mission will launch to the Red Planet on a SpaceX Starship vehicle, a reusable rocket-and-spacecraft combo that is currently under development at the company’s South Texas facility. SpaceX is also planning to use Starship for missions to the moon starting in 2022, as well as point-to-point trips around the Earth. Musk has long said that humans need to establish a permanent and self-sustaining presence on Mars to ensure “the continuance of consciousness as we know it” — just in case planet Earth is left uninhabitable by a something like a nuclear war or an asteroid strike. But SpaceX doesn’t have any plans to actually build a Mars base. As a transportation company, its only goal is to ferry cargo (and humans) to and from the Red Planet, facilitating the development of someone else’s Mars base.

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Space industry rebounds from pandemic

Despite dire predictions just six months ago, space companies in general, and start-ups in particular, have survived the pandemic and its economic fallout in relatively good shape. In sessions at the three-day Satellite Innovation 2020 conference that concluded Oct. 8, executives and other industry observers concluded that the industry fared better than expected in the spring, when the pandemic caused a sharp drop in overall economic activity. “Despite my worst fears, we seemed to have rolled through this whole COVID thing with not nearly the amount of damage I thought we could have sustained,” said Chris Quilty, president of Quilty Analytics, during an Oct. 6 panel. He credited an economy that, at least in some sectors, rebounded faster than expected in the last several months. There has been some “roadkill” in the form of companies that filed for bankruptcy or laid off employees, he acknowledged, “but much less than I would have expected.”

Others noted that many companies in the space industry in the United States were classified as “critical infrastructure” by the federal government and could remain open during stay-at-home orders. Many also relied on the government as customers, which offered a stability not found in other sectors of the economy. “Many companies in space have not had to shut down completely for a long time during this terrible year that, overall, globally everybody has had, which has been helping a lot in having a very positive outlook right now,” said Marco Villa, president and chief operating officer of Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems. He noted there have been supply chain issues because some suppliers did shut down, “but they’re picking up again.”

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Black hole kills star by ‘spaghettification’ as telescopes watch

Telescopes have captured the rare light flash from a dying star as it was ripped apart by a supermassive black hole. This rarely seen “tidal disruption event” — which creates spaghettification in stars as they stretch and stretch – is the closest such known event to happen, at only 215 million light-years from Earth. (For comparison, the nearest star system to Earth – Alpha Centauri — is roughly 4 light-years away, and the Milky Way is roughly 200,000 light years in diameter.) One light-year is the distance light travels in a year, about 6 trillion miles (10 trillion kilometres).

“The idea of a black hole ‘sucking in’ a nearby star sounds like science fiction. But this is exactly what happens in a tidal disruption event,” the new study’s lead author Matt Nicholl, a lecturer and Royal Astronomical Society research fellow at the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom, said in a European Southern Observatory statement. “When an unlucky star wanders too close to a supermassive black hole in the centre of a galaxy, the extreme gravitational pull of the black hole shreds the star into thin streams of material,” co-author Thomas Wevers said in the same statement. The team also estimated the size of the doomed star at about the same mass as our own sun. It didn’t have a chance against the black hole, which has a mass of more than 1 million times that of the sun.

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James Webb Space Telescope getting closer to launch

The multi-billion dollar successor of the Hubble telescope, NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, has completed a couple of crucial tests and is closer to its shipment to French Guiana for launch, NASA said. “With the completion of its latest series of milestone tests, NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope has now survived all of the harsh conditions associated with a rocket launch to space,” the U.S. space agency said.

The James Webb Space Telescope is the world’s largest, most powerful, and complex space science telescope ever built; the program – named after the second NASA Administrator in the sixties – is led by NASA, along with its partners ESA (European Space Agency) and the Canadian Space Agency. “Webb is NASA’s next great space science observatory, which will help in solving the mysteries of our solar system, looking beyond to distant worlds around other stars, and probing the mystifying structures and origins of our universe,” NASA said.

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U.S. Transportation Command to study use of SpaceX rockets to move cargo around the world

The U.S. military command that oversees logistics operations has signed an agreement with SpaceX and XArc to study the use of space launch vehicles to transport supplies in an emergency. Army Gen. Stephen Lyons, commander of U.S. Transportation Command, announced the agreement Oct. 7 at a National Defense Transportation Association virtual conference. “Think about moving the equivalent of a C-17 payload anywhere on the globe in less than an hour,” Lyons said. The C-17 is a very large military cargo plane capable of transporting a 70-ton main battle tank.

Transportation Command has signed a cooperative research and development agreement, known as CRADA, with SpaceX and Exploration Architecture Corporation (XArc) to study concepts for rapid transportation through space. “There is a lot of potential here,” said Lyons He noted that one of the challenges of military logistics is the “tyranny of distance and time, and global access.” Space transportation is weight- and volume-constrained compared to airlift, and has limited options for launching and recovery operations. “As industry advances to overcome these challenges and decrease costs, a space transportation capability to put a crucial cargo quickly on target at considerable distances makes it an attractive alternative,” said U.S. TRANSCOM Deputy Commander Vice Adm. Dee Mewbourne.

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‘Self-eating rocket’ tech snags funding from UK government

The U.K. government aims to spur the development of rockets that gobble themselves up on the way to orbit. The Ministry of Defence’s Defence & Security Accelerator (DASA) has pledged £90,000 — about $117,000 USD at current exchange rates — for the continued development of the “autophage” rocket engine, which is being built by researchers at the University of Glasgow in Scotland. The tech is a great fit for small rockets “because scaling down a rocket reduces the mass of the propellant more than it reduces the mass of all the other components, including the tanks that hold the propellant itself,” Patrick Harkness, of the University of Glasgow’s James Watt School of Engineering, said in a statement. “The autophage concept is simple: burn the tanks as well,” Harkess said. “That saves the excess mass, and it means that we can miniaturize the vehicle without hitting this wall.”

The Glasgow team has already test-fired a version of the autophage engine that burns all-solid propellant. The DASA money will help fund research into the use of a more energy-rich hybrid propellant, team members said. “The body of a hybrid autophage rocket will be a tube of solid fuel, containing a liquid oxidizer,” Harkess said. “The entire assembly will be consumed, from the bottom up, by an engine which will vaporize the fuel tube, add the oxidizer and burn the mixture to create thrust. The engine will have consumed the entire body of the rocket by the time the assembly reaches orbit, and only the payload will be left. It is a much more mass-efficient process.” The hybrid engine will be test-fired next year, at Kingston University in London, if all goes according to plan.

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Saturn’s chaotic moon Titan may be a lot younger than we thought

Saturn is a busy planet. The gas giant is known for its mysterious rings made up of comets, asteroids and broken rocky objects, and has the largest number of moons of any other planet in the Solar System, beating Jupiter by three more moons. Saturn’s many moons are believed to have formed around the same time as the Solar System, at least 4 billion years ago. However, a new model suggests that the orbiting moons may be a lot younger than previously thought, with some forming only a couple of million years ago.

A study, published recently in the Journal of Geophysical Research Planets, has major implications for our understanding of Saturn’s moon Titan and its chaotic, liquid-filled terrain. Samuel Bell, a research scientist at the Planetary Science Institute, and lead author of the new study, looked at the rate of impact on the different moons that orbit Saturn in order to develop a new chronology for the natural satellites. When looking at the impact craters on Saturn’s moons to help estimate their age, previous models had assumed that the impacts were a result of comets orbiting around the Sun. But there is an increased amount of evidence that the craters were formed from objects orbiting Saturn itself, smaller moonlets that are too small to detect with current telescopes. The new chronology for Saturn’s moons suggests that Titan is a much younger moon than previously believed, shaving off a few million years of its life. “The surface of Titan is younger than its neighbouring moons, it could in fact be way younger,” Bell says. “It may be around 15 million years, which is a very young, active, kind of environment.”

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See a rare Earth-grazer meteoroid skim us and ‘bounce’ back into space

A chunk of space rock spectacularly survived a close encounter with Earth. Little pieces of asteroids and comets come at Earth all the time. Some of them pass on by. Some of them burn up in the atmosphere, creating bright fireball streaks across the sky. And, every once in a while, a fragment comes in close and then escapes. These are known as “Earth-grazers.” Meteoroid is the term used for a small body that travels through space. If it reaches Earth’s atmosphere and turns into a “shooting star,” then it’s a meteor. If a leftover piece of it survives all the way to the ground, then it’s a meteorite. “This is only the fifth documented Earth-grazer of this size,” Vida told CNET in an email. “There are probably more because not all observations are published, but they are significantly more uncommon than ordinary meteors.”

The Global Meteor Network, a network of sky watching cameras, spotted a rare Earth-grazer meteoroid and captured its elegant movement in a dramatic GIF. It shows the meteoroid arcing through the night sky over northern Germany and the Netherlands on Sept. 22 before “bouncing” back into space. The European Space Agency highlighted the dazzling footage in a statement last week. “The network is basically a decentralized scientific instrument, made up of amateur astronomers and citizen scientists around the planet each with their own camera systems,” Global Meteor Network founder Denis Vida told ESA.

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World Space Week: Satellites Improve Life

Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, there are safe and exciting ways to celebrate World Space Week this year, running from Sunday 4th October to Saturday 10th October. One way is to observe satellites. The World Space Week 2020 theme, Satellites Improve Life, encourages students and the public to learn about satellites and the many ways they improve life on Earth. A first step is to simply observe satellites from your backyard. If you can see stars from where you live, you can probably see some satellites. Observing satellites is simple. After sunset when the sky is dark, go outside and turn off any outdoor lights. Let your eyes adjust to the darkness. Look at the stars. You can easily tell a satellite from a star because the satellite is moving slowly. Sometimes it may appear to blink because it is rotating. Satellites will move across the sky from horizon to horizon. You can see satellites in the early evening because, although it is dark where you are standing, there is still sunlight above you in low-Earth orbit (LEO). You can see LEO satellites because they reflect light from the sun to your eyes. On a typical evening with dark skies, you can easily see several satellites. This technique also works just before dawn.

You can also look for events and further information about World Space Week here:

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Small air leak on space station traced to Russian service module but the exact location remains unknown

The case of the small air leak on the International Space Station may be nearly cracked. Investigators have traced the source of the leak to the “main work area” of the Zvezda Service Module, the heart of the Russian part of the station, NASA officials announced today (Sept. 29). “Additional work is underway to precisely locate the source of the leak,” agency officials wrote in an update today. “The leak, which has been investigated for several weeks, poses no immediate danger to the crew at the current leak rate and only a slight deviation to the crew’s schedule.” The leak is causing an atmospheric pressure decrease of 1 millimetre every 8 hours, officials with Roscosmos, the Russian federal space agency, said via Twitter this morning. They also stressed that NASA’s Chris Cassidy and Russian cosmonauts Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner, who have been living onboard the orbiting lab, remain safe.

The International Space Station is not completely airtight. The orbiting complex continuously loses tiny amounts of gas to space and is regularly repressurized using nitrogen tanks brought up by cargo spacecraft. In September 2019, station managers noticed a slight uptick in that normal background rate. It took a while to characterize the leak fully, because crewmembers and station managers were occupied with spacewalks, spacecraft arrivals and departures, and other big-ticket orbital activities, NASA officials have said. The leak investigation didn’t really get going until last month.

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NASA launching new space toilet and more to space station this week

A private cargo spacecraft will lift off from Virginia on Tuesday (Sept. 29). The mission, known as Cygnus NG-14, will be deliver 7,624 lbs (3,458 kilograms) of cargo on the14th flight for Northrop Grumman’s robotic Cygnus spacecraft and the resupply craft’s 13th mission to the International Space Station. Cygnus will launch atop an Antares rocket Sept. 29 at 10:27 p.m. EDT (0227 a.m. GMT Sept. 30) from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. Northrop Grumman has named the Cygnus spacecraft the S.S. Kalpana Chawla to honour astronaut Kalpana Chawla, who was one of seven astronauts who died in the Columbia shuttle tragedy in 2003.

The spacecraft will be carrying tons of fresh supplies to the International Space Station, including scientific experiments, skincare and a brand-new space toilet. The $23 million space toilet, which was created with astronaut input, will be among the important experiments and equipment sent with this launch. This toilet is 65% smaller and 40% lighter than the toilet currently on the space station, NASA officials said. The cargo will also include a radish-growing experiment known as Plant Habitat-02; the Onco Selectors investigation, which will focus on cancer therapies; a novel water recovery system experiment; a specialized camera that will capture what it’s like to be aboard the space station in 360-degree virtual reality; bottles of skincare serum from Estée Lauder; and much more.

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NASA details Artemis program plan to land on the Moon in 2024

NASA has revealed details of its accelerated Artemis mission plan to land humans on the Moon in 2024, more than 50 years after the last Apollo lunar mission in 1972. The U.S. space agency’s plan specifies key milestones for building, testing and launching its powerful new Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and the Orion spacecraft to land humans on the Moon. NASA aims for a first unmanned mission, Artemis I, in 2021, following the completion of the Orion spacecraft and the final rocket tests. “The spacecraft is complete while the core stage and its attached four engines are undergoing a final series of tests that will culminate in a critical hot fire test this fall”, the agency said in a press release on 21 September.

Following this test, the core stage of the rocket will be shipped to Kennedy Space Center in Florida to integrate it with the spacecraft and launch SLS and Orion together on two test flight around the Moon. “The first mission – known as Artemis I – is on track for 2021 without astronauts, and Artemis II will fly with crew in 2023,” NASA said. The agency foresees “humanity’s return to the surface of the Moon” for 2024, with Artemis III landing astronauts on the lunar South Pole. “Wearing modern spacesuits that allow for greater flexibility and movement than those of their Apollo predecessors, astronauts will collect samples and conduct a range of science experiments over the course of nearly seven days. Using the lander, they will return to lunar orbit before ultimately heading home to Earth aboard Orion.”

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Saturn’s ocean moon Enceladus has fresh ice in unexpected place: Enceladus may be even more interesting than we thought.

Saturn’s geyser-spewing moon Enceladus may be even more active than scientists had thought. Fresh images created using data from NASA’s dead Cassini spacecraft show that Enceladus’ northern hemisphere was resurfaced with ice relatively recently. This new information adds to the known activity in the southern hemisphere, where Cassini spotted more than 100 geysers blasting icy water into space. Researchers spotted the northern changes after looking at the heat signature of Enceladus, using reflected sunlight parsed with Cassini’s visible and infrared mapping spectrometer instrument, or VIMS. “Thanks to these infrared eyes [on Cassini], you can go back in time and say that one large region in the northern hemisphere appears also young and was probably active not that long ago, in geologic timelines,” Gabriel Tobie, a study co-author and VIMS scientist at the University of Nantes in France, said in a NASA statement.

The team combined VIMS data with visible imagery captured by Cassini to create a new, global map of Enceladus in multiple wavelengths of light, both infrared and visible. The map shows that the infrared signals correlate with recent geologic activity on the moon, the researchers said. To the surprise of scientists, however, the new map also shows infrared features in the moon’s northern hemisphere. The data suggests that icy resurfacing also happened up north, but how is not yet clear. The changes could have been due to more icy jets, or slower ice movements through cracks in the crust, team members said. Enceladus is one of the most promising abodes for alien life in the solar system. In addition to the subsurface ocean and geological activity, the moon likely has an energy source that organisms could tap into — chemical reactions perhaps similar to those that sustain life near Earth’s deep-sea hydrothermal vents.

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Space Hero reality TV contest to send civilian to ISS in 2023

The London-based TV series and show producer Space Hero is planning to send the winner of a global reality TV competition to the International Space Station (ISS) in 2023, Space Hero announced last week. Space Hero has secured a seat on a 2023 mission to the ISS and launched what Space Hero describes as the world’s first global space casting show. Space Hero did not specify which mission it will use to send a civilian to space and launch its global reality TV contest. Space Hero was created in 2008 in Berlin and moved its headquarters to London in 2016. “Space Hero’s mission is to break barriers and create avenues for greater participation by the Public, bringing Millions of People into the New Space economy…Through new media, Space Hero will help advance humanity and continue the ground-breaking progresses in Space Exploration,” Space Hero says in its LinkedIn profile.

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Rocket Lab gears up for 1st launch from US soil but a launch date has not yet been set.

Rocket Lab is nearly ready to launch its first mission from American soil. The California-based company, which has launched 14 missions to date from its New Zealand site, just wrapped up a “wet dress rehearsal” at its Launch Complex 2 (LC-2), at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport in Wallops Island, Virginia. During the exercise, a Rocket Lab Electron booster was rolled out to the newly built pad, raised vertical and fuelled. Mission managers then took a simulated countdown all the way to 0, to verify that all procedures will work as planned on launch day.

“With this major milestone complete, the Electron launch vehicle, launch team and the LC-2 pad systems are now ready for Rocket Lab’s first launch from U.S. soil,” company representatives said in a statement on Thursday (Sept. 17). There is still one major box left to tick, however: NASA must finish certifying Rocket Lab’s autonomous flight termination system, which is designed to end a mission automatically if something goes wrong during launch. Indeed, a targeted launch date will not be set until this hurdle has been cleared, company representatives said.

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