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Virgin Galactic unveils sleek interior of SpaceShipTwo spaceliner

We now know what Virgin Galactic’s suborbital spaceliner looks like, inside and out: SpaceShipTwo passengers will ride in style. The company, part of billionaire Richard Branson’s Virgin Group, revealed the cabin interior of the six-passenger SpaceShipTwo, which is designed to carry people and payloads to suborbital space and back. “When we created Virgin Galactic, we started with what we believed would be an optimal customer experience and then built the spaceship around it,” Branson said in a statement today. “We will continue with that ethos as we expand our fleet, build our operations and underpin Virgin Galactic’s position as the spaceline for Earth,” he said. “This cabin has been designed specifically to allow thousands of people like you and me to achieve the dream of spaceflight safely — and that is incredibly exciting.”

The six seats can recline, a feature that SpaceShipTwo’s two pilots will manage to minimize g-forces on passengers during the boost and re-entry phases of each suborbital flight. Every seat boasts a screen that will display flight data, and passengers will have personal communications systems that give them access to the pilots, Virgin Galactic representatives said. SpaceShipTwo is hauled aloft by a big plane called WhiteKnightTwo, which drops the spacecraft at an altitude of about 50,000 feet (15,000 meters). SpaceShipTwo’s onboard rocket motor then kicks on, blasting the vehicle up to suborbital space. Passengers will get to see the curvature of Earth against the blackness of space and experience a few minutes of weightlessness before they come back home for a runway landing. The cabin is designed to accentuate this dramatic and (for most people) once-in-a-lifetime experience, company personnel said.

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NASA’s Mars 2020 Perseverance rover will use some of the best Martian maps ever made

NASA’s next Mars rover, Perseverance, will explore the Red Planet with the aid of some of the most precise Martian maps ever created. The rover will be able to identify and avoid hazards during its harrowing touchdown. Perseverance, the centrepiece of NASA’s $2.7 billion Mars 2020 mission, is scheduled to launch from Florida’s Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Thursday morning (July 30). If all goes according to plan, the car-sized rover will touch down inside Mars’ Jezero Crater on Feb. 18, 2021. The 28-mile-wide (45 kilometres) Jezero hosted a lake and a river delta in the ancient past, making it an ideal destination for the life-hunting, sample-caching Perseverance. Ideal scientifically, anyway. The crater is covered in rough and rugged terrain, especially in the delta region so enticing to mission researchers, posing a challenge for the engineers tasked with getting the six-wheeled robot down safely.

Mars 2020 will meet that challenge with the help of several new technologies. One of the most important is Terrain-Relative Navigation (TRN), which will allow the mission’s sky-crane descent stage to assess the Jezero landscape for hazards during its landing approach and change course autonomously if need be. That’s where the ground-breaking cartography comes in. Mars 2020 will take advantage of two maps that United States Geological Survey (USGS) researchers created using imagery captured by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Mars 2020 will snap photos of the Jezero landscape as it descends through the Red Planet sky next February. Its onboard TRN system will then compare this imagery to the precisely aligned maps, in a manner similar to that employed by facial-recognition software. “It can then identify, ‘Are we going to be landing on a red pixel?’ and, if we are, fire its retrorockets and navigate to the closest green pixel possible,” Robin Fergason, a research geophysicist at the USGS’ Astrogeology Science Center in Flagstaff, Arizona, told Space.com. “If we didn’t have Terrain-Relative Navigation, the probability of landing safely at Jezero Crater is about 80 to 85%. But with Mars 2020, we can actually bring that probability of success of landing safely at Jezero Crater all the way up to 99% safe every single time,” Mars 2020 guidance and control engineer Swati Mohan, of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, said in a 2019 NASA video about TRN. (JPL built Perseverance, developed its TRN system and will manage mission operations on the Red Planet).

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NASA’s Mars rover Perseverance launches this week if all goes according to plan

The car-sized Perseverance rover, the centrepiece of NASA’s $2.7 billion Mars 2020 mission, is scheduled to launch Thursday (July 30) during a two-hour window that opens at 7:50 a.m. EDT (1150 GMT). The spacecraft will lift off atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

Mission team members have some wiggle room if technical issues or bad weather scuttle the Thursday attempt. Mars 2020 can still make its way to the Red Planet as long as it launches by Aug. 15, NASA officials have said. After that, the mission would have to wait 26 months, until Mars and Earth are properly aligned again for interplanetary journeys.

Mars 2020 will be the third and final mission to launch toward the Red Planet during this year’s window. The United Arab Emirates’ Hope orbiter and China’s ambitious Tianwen-1 mission launched on July 19 and July 23, respectively. A fourth spacecraft, the European-Russian ExoMars rover Rosalind Franklin, was supposed to join the launch party this summer. But that mission suffered technical issues that could not be fixed in time and now must wait until 2022.

Read the full story to see the schedule of daily press conferences and briefings leading up to the launch and find out how you can watch the spaceflight live.

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Southern Launch prepares for spaceflight in South Australia

The development of small-satellite technologies (SmallSats) has ushered in an era of dynamic and responsive space systems. Hundreds, and soon thousands, of these small platforms will be launched into Low Earth Orbits (LEO) every year. LEO are ideal for Earth-Observation missions and other near-earth activities, including internet with global coverage. Approximately half of these SmallSats are projected to be launched into polar orbits, with the other half orbiting around the equator. According to recent estimates by an SSTL study, close to 1000 SmallSats will be launched annually from 2025 onwards. These satellites will be inserted into new and existing LEO constellations, offering innovative services to the world, while actively limiting the proliferation of space debris in orbits. SmallSats in LEO remain there for less than 3 years before burning up in the Earth’s atmosphere.

Historically, launch sites have been constructed closer to the equator to support large satellites launches into equatorial orbit. However, direct launch to polar orbit is achieved most efficiently from launch sites nearer the poles, which have minimal interference from aviation and maritime traffic. Southern Launch, founded in 2017, is developing a multi-user launch complex at the tip of the Eyre Peninsula in South Australia, offering a turn-key launch service solution to polar and sun-synchronous orbit. In addition to providing the complete launch infrastructure, Southern Launch has the ability to undertake flight and range safety, vehicle design, and avionics, while assisting with launch permitting and other support services. The year-round temperate weather, coupled with the skilled local workforce and a robust logistics supply network, enables a launch site that offers high-cadence launch operations at cost-competitive prices.

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China’s Tianwen-1 Mars rover mission gets a boost from international partners

Following the completion of multiple integrated rehearsals, China is ready for the launch of its first fully homegrown Mars mission. Tianwen-1, which consists of an orbiter, lander and rover, is scheduled to lift off in late July or early August, according to the China National Space Administration (CNSA). Speculation is that the launch is targeted for July 23, the opening of the window. Last Friday (July 17), the fourth Long March-5 rocket — coded as Long March-5 Y4 — was vertically transported to the launching area at the Wenchang Space Launch Center in south China’s Hainan Province.

In a recent interview with China Central Television (CCTV), Tianwen-1 deputy director Zhang Yu said that scientists have conducted joint tests on multiple systems of the Mars mission at all levels and are ready for the launch. “We have carried out multiple coordinated manoeuvres over flight and control together with launching site system, the rocket system and the probe system, which have verified the validity of interfaces between different systems and the flight program, and also indicated that we are capable of conducting the first Mars probe of our country,” said Zhang.

China’s Mars mission is ambitious, aiming to pull off orbiting, landing and roving — a historic all-in-one mission. To do so, the country has beefed up its deep-space monitoring network capability to support the Tianwen-1 mission. Once the probe has entered Earth-Mars transfer orbit, the control centre’s two monitoring stations, in Kashgar of north-western Xinjiang’s Uygur Autonomous Region, and Jiamusi, in north-eastern Heilongjiang Province, will swing into action.

China’s bid to explore Mars involves several other nations for tracking, orbital relay of data and science instrument support. The European, French, Argentine and Austrian space agencies are all helping out. At the Long March-5 rollout, the booster’s protective payload fairing was seen to be adorned with European (ESA), French (CNES), Argentine (CONAE) and Austrian (FFG) space agency logos, in addition to that of the CNSA. “Successful space travel often means pooling resources, and at ESA we are happy to support the new Martian mission with our Estrack network of antennas as well as with our Mars Express spacecraft, currently in orbit at the Red Planet,” ESA’s Beatriz Arias told Space.com.

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UAE’s Hope mission on its way to Mars

A Japanese rocket launched the United Arab Emirates’ first mission to Mars July 19, an orbiter that will study the planet’s weather while demonstrating the country’s growing space capabilities. The H-2A rocket lifted off from the Tanegashima Space Center in Japan at 5:58 p.m. Eastern. The launch was originally scheduled for July 14 but delayed five days by poor weather at the launch site. The rocket’s upper stage released the Emirates Mars Mission, or Hope, spacecraft, nearly an hour after lift-off. The spacecraft contracted controllers shortly after separation.

Hope is a 1,350-kilogram satellite developed by the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre (MBRSC) in the UAE. The spacecraft will arrive at Mars in February 2021 and go into an initial elliptical orbit between 1,000 and 49,380 kilometres above the planet. It will later move into its desired orbit for science observations, with altitudes ranging from 20,000 to 43,000 kilometres. Development of Hope started in late 2013 as the next phase in the country’s effort to grow its space capabilities, after development of a series of Earth observation spacecraft. “They wanted us to take it to the next level,” said Omran Sharaf, project manager for Hope. “They wanted us to create a career path for scientists.”

Hope carries three instruments: a camera, infrared spectrometer and ultraviolet spectrometer. The spacecraft will provide data on the Martian atmosphere, including monitoring weather and climate to a greater degree than past Mars orbiter missions by the United States and other nations. “One of the requirements very early on was to send a mission that does more than capture an image declaring that the UAE reached Mars,” said Sarah al-Amiri, UAE minister of state for advanced sciences and deputy project manager for Hope. “We are the very first weather satellite for Mars.”

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NASA delays James Webb Space Telescope launch by seven months

NASA recently announced that it is delaying the launch of its largest-ever space observatory, the James Webb Space Telescope, by seven months to address both technical issues as well as the effects of the coronavirus pandemic. Agency officials said in a media teleconference that the launch of JWST is now projected for Oct. 31, 2021. The agency had previously scheduled the launch for the end of March 2021.

Greg Robinson, the program director for JWST at NASA, said that “three-plus” months of the delay is caused by the pandemic, including effects on the program to date as well as declines in efficiency in future activities because of new procedures that slow down the pace of work on the telescope at a Northrop Grumman facility in Southern California. That work briefly halted in March because of the pandemic, then continued at a slower pace for a couple months before the company was able to resume “near-full” shifts. Another two months of the delay is to add schedule reserve to the program. Robinson said that the mission, which had two months of schedule reserve remaining at the beginning of the year, now had three months to comply with agency best practices for program management. “We think we have a robust reserve,” he said. The rest of the delay is to provide additional time for remaining test activities, including acoustics and vibration testing and a deployment test of the spacecraft’s sunshield. That additional time, Robinson said, was based on “learning how to do certain activities” from earlier phases of the program.

Agency officials emphasized in the media call the valuable science that JWST will perform is worth this delay, the latest in a series of delays that pushed back the launch of the space telescope by several years. “We’re opening up an entirely new horizon of discoveries about our universe with the Webb Telescope,” Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA associate administrator for science, said. “Our important work provides inspiration to everyone.”

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Join the National Space Society for ‘A Day in Space,’ a celebration of spaceflight, this week

On July 16, 2020, a unique online presentation from the National Space Society (NSS) will bring the solar system to your doorstep. “A Day in Space” is a day-long virtual forum that promises some truly unique spaceflight and exploration experiences. The presentation will be co-hosted by Geoffrey Notkin, president of the National Space Society and television personality, and Dr Sian Proctor, college professor, geoscientist and NASA astronaut finalist.

In an exclusive interview Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin will take you back into the heady years of the Space Race and plunge you into the future of the exploration of our solar system. Planetary scientist Alan Stern will take you on a journey to Pluto and beyond to tiny Arrokoth (formerly known as Ultima Thule). NASA engineer and NSS Senior Operating Officer Bruce Pittman tells us about the merging of Wernher von Braun and Gerard O’Neill’s visions to form the National Space Society. Billionaire NewSpace financier Steve Jurvetson tells the thrilling tale of investing in SpaceX in some of their darkest moments, supporting disruptive innovation with Planet Labs, and the future of orbital space tourism and investing in the space business. Jet Propulsion Laboratory chief engineer Rob Manning and space author Rod Pyle square off for a smackdown over the character of Mars.

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The UAE wants to rewrite what we know about weather on Mars

A nagging problem with planets is that they are just so large: Send a spacecraft to one patch of a planet and inevitably, some of the things you learn will apply only right there. That struggle is particularly difficult when scientists ponder a planet’s atmosphere and weather. By definition, these are global phenomena, and they interact with other global phenomena in intricate ways. That conundrum is why, despite a rich history of spacecraft observations of Mars, scientists are still puzzling over how the planet’s atmosphere really works — from top to bottom, pole to pole, and dawn to dusk and back again.

If all goes well, a mission from a country that’s a newcomer to planetary science will soon begin to gather the data scientists need for a truly global understanding of the Martian atmosphere. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) plans to launch its first interplanetary spacecraft, called the Emirates Mars Mission or Hope, on Tuesday (July 14), with lift-off scheduled for 4:51 p.m. EDT (2051 GMT). Then, the $200 million mission will embark on a seven-month cruise to Mars, slipping into orbit around the Red Planet in early 2021. Hope is scheduled to observe Mars for at least a full Martian year (a bit less than two Earth years) as it works to understand the Martian atmosphere. If the spacecraft successfully arrives — which the team well knows is a difficult proposition — the UAE will become the fifth or sixth entity to orbit Mars, depending on how the mission’s timeline compares with that of China’s Tianwen-1 Mars lander, also launching this summer.

A dozen orbiters have worked at Mars before, and Hope was purposefully designed with an eye to the half-century-long history of spacecraft sent to Mars. Nevertheless, mission personnel wanted to avoid the risk of staying within the limits of what other projects have done. “We always learn from previous missions,” Mariam Al Shamsi, director of the space science department at the UAE’s Mohammed bin Rashid Space Center, which runs the Hope mission, told Space.com. “There is no perfect mission, so every mission that comes up learns from the previous missions.” In the case of Hope, the mission learned particularly from NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) orbiter, scientists said. “The science of the mission is very complimentary to other missions that went to Mars,” Hessa Al Matroushi, science data and analysis lead for the mission at the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Center, told Space.com. “But it complements them, it adds more understanding to the gaps that had been shown.”

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NASA astronaut Stephanie Wilson on going to the moon, Mars and leading the next generation

NASA astronaut Stephanie Wilson is ready and excited for the future of space exploration. Earlier this year (before the COVID-19 pandemic) Space.com met up with NASA astronaut Stephanie Wilson, a veteran of three spaceflights who has logged more than 42 days in space, at the Cradle of Aviation Museum in Long Island, New York. Wilson, who is one of 17 NASA astronauts eligible to become the first woman to step foot on the moon in 2024 as part of NASA’s Artemis program, shared her thoughts on the future of space exploration and her advice for new explorers dreaming of joining the Artemis generation.

With regard to her lunar prospects, Wilson said, “I am of course excited to be included among the group and look forward to whoever the first woman is and the women who follow as part of the Artemis program to continue our studies of the moon, continue to descend down to the surface in a lander and hopefully to build a lunar base there on the moon and continue our journey from the Gateway orbiting laboratory.” The “Gateway,” Wilson refers to the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway, a proposed NASA program that would orbit around the moon and allow astronauts to more easily travel back and forth from the lunar surface. She added that the fact that Artemis explicitly includes women is “a wonderful testament to the progress that women have made” in human spaceflight since women were first allowed to apply to the astronaut corps in 1978.

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The 1st-ever Mars helicopter will start flying next year

Ingenuity could pave the way for extensive exploration of the Martian skies. NASA’s Perseverance rover will have a special passenger when it alights inside Mars’ Jezero Crater in February 2021 — the first helicopter ever to fly on another world. The 4-lb. (1.8 kilograms) chopper, named Ingenuity, will ride to Mars on Perseverance’s belly, squeezing into a spot that offers roughly 24 inches (61 centimetres) of ground clearance, including the helicopter delivery system. Ingenuity itself is only 5 inches (12 cm) shorter than the clearance area.

“That is not a lot of room to play with,” Chris Salvo, the helicopter interface lead of Mars 2020, the official name of Perseverance’s mission, said in a statement. “But we found if you attach the helicopter horizontally, there is enough to get the job done,” said Salvo, who’s based at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California.

Ingenuity will continue clinging to Perseverance for about two months after the rover’s landing on Feb. 18, 2021. The two machines (with help from remote operators on Earth) will hunt for a flat, unobstructed area where Ingenuity can do test operations. The team will need to find a zone that is about 33 feet by 33 feet (10 by 10 metres) that Perseverance can monitor while parked about one American football field away, mission team members said. Ingenuity’s deployment will happen after Perseverance drives into the centre of the airfield. Operators will spend about six Earth days checking all systems before getting the helicopter ready to fly.

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Rocket Lab Electron launch fails

A Rocket Lab Electron rocket failed to reach orbit during a July 4 launch after a problem during the rocket’s second-stage burn. The Electron rocket lifted off from the company’s Launch Complex 1 at Mahia Peninsula, New Zealand, at 5:19 p.m. Eastern. The launch was originally scheduled for July 3 but pushed back two days because of poor weather in the forecast, only for the company to move up the launch to July 4 based on a reassessment of the weather.

The initial phases of the launch appeared to go as planned, although the vehicle’s passage through “max-q,” or maximum dynamic pressure, appeared to be rougher than what was seen in previous launches. Onboard video taken shortly before first-stage separation showed material appearing to peel from the rocket, although it was not clear if it simply a decal applied to the rocket or something more substantial. The onboard video from the rocket froze about five minutes and 45 seconds after lift-off, or three minutes into the seconds stage burn. At six and a half minutes after lift-off, a launch controller on the company’s webcast of the launch said, “Initiating mishap response plan.” Telemetry from the rocket, displayed on the webcast, showed the rocket’s altitude falling from about 194 kilometres to less than 165 kilometres for about 90 seconds before that information was removed from the screen. The company ended the webcast 11 minutes after lift-off, two minutes after the rocket’s second stage should have shut down and the kick stage, carrying its payload of seven satellites, deployed.

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Tiny, simple moon rovers will bring CubeSat science to the lunar surface

CubeSats have revolutionized orbital science, and a roving counterpart may soon do the same for surface science, beginning on the moon. Next year, as part of NASA’s lunar delivery orchestrated by the Pennsylvania-based company Astrobotic, the agency will launch a small rover to begin that revolution. That rover is called Iris and is the first of a new, small and simple design called CubeRovers to hearken back to CubeSats. These orbital predecessors are small, semi-standardized spacecraft that are cheap to build and launch.

NASA, Astrobotic and Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh are all taking part in the CubeRover project targeting a 2021 launch date as part of the agency’s overall Artemis program, which aims to land humans on the moon in 2024. However, Iris would fly on a private delivery run, rather than an Artemis mission launched by NASA. “For such a tiny rover, Iris has a big mission to lead America back to the moon, and I’m so proud to lead this team of passionate students who are paving the way for future planetary robotic exploration,” Raewyn Duvall, deputy program manager for Iris and a doctoral student at Carnegie Mellon, said in a statement. “We’re all excited for Iris’s launch, to drive a rover on the lunar surface, and to see what we can discover!”

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Exposed planetary core spotted circling distant star

Astronomers have spotted the exposed core of a massive alien world, an unprecedented find that could shed considerable light on planet formation, evolution and diversity. The planetary core, called TOI-849b, is unlike anything scientists have seen before, and it could hide a wealth of exciting information in its bizarre depths, researchers say. “The discovery of

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SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule looked ‘pretty awesome’ in spacewalk, astronaut says

NASA astronauts got a “pretty awesome” view of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon vehicle docked with the International Space Station during a spacewalk on Friday (June 26). Astronauts Chris Cassidy and Bob Behnken got the view of a lifetime when they stepped outside the space station to replace the outpost’s old solar array batteries. The star of that view was Endeavour, the SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft that delivered Behnken and his fellow NASA astronaut Doug Hurley to the station May 30 on their Demo-2 mission.

Cassidy snapped a photo of the sight, with Endeavour clearly straight ahead and JAXA’s HTV-9 cargo vehicle also visible. In the photo, pictured just below the craft, you can see the stunning, blue curvature of the Earth. During a media conference from onboard the space station on June 29, they were asked about the most memorable moments from this spacewalk. Behnken noted this view as one of those moments. “Chris and I had a great event last Friday and a wonderful view of Dragon,” Behnken said. “It was just awesome to be able to look back and snap a picture and I think we got a good daylight shot that kind of showed HTV and Dragon all out there on the front of space station. It was pretty awesome.”

The pair stepped out for this spacewalk to swap out aging nickel-hydrogen batteries for new, more efficient, smaller lithium-ion batteries as part of a series of battery swap spacewalks. Behnken and Cassidy will venture out on another battery swap spacewalk Wednesday (July 1).

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Scientists spot flash of light from colliding black holes. But how?

Black holes aren’t supposed to make flashes of light. It’s right there in the name: black holes. Even when they slam into each, the massive objects are supposed to be invisible to astronomers’ traditional instruments. But when scientists detected a black holes collision last year, they also spotted a weird flash from the crash. On May 21, 2019, Earth’s gravitational wave detectors caught the signal of a pair of massive objects colliding, sending ripples cascading through spacetime. Later, an observatory called the Zwicky Transient Facility (ZTF) caught a blast of light. As scientists looked at the two signals, they realized both came from the same patch of sky, and researchers started wondering whether they had spotted the rare visible black hole collision.

Here’s what scientists think happened in this strange case. The two black holes that merged were locked in the disk surrounding a quasar, a supermassive black hole that shoots out blasts of energy. “This supermassive black hole was burbling along for years before this more abrupt flare,” Matthew Graham, an astronomer at Caltech and the project scientist for ZTF, said in a university statement. That in and of itself isn’t so strange, according to his colleague. “Supermassive black holes like this one have flares all the time,” co-author Mansi Kasliwal, an astronomer at Caltech, said in the statement. “They are not quiet objects, but the timing, size and location of this flare was spectacular.”

Scientists suspect, based on the pairing of gravitational waves and light, that the flare sprang from two small black holes merging within the accretion disk of the supermassive black hole. The supermassive black hole’s incredibly strong gravity affects the smaller stuff in the disk, even other black holes. The flash of light doesn’t come from the merger itself, the scientists think. Instead, the force of the merger sends the now-a-little-larger black hole flying off, through the gas surrounding it in the supermassive black hole’s accretion disk. The gas, in turn, produces the flare after a delay of days or weeks, the theory goes according to the statement. In the case of this event, scientists detected the flare about 34 days after the gravitational wave signal.

That’s not a guarantee that this explanation fits what happened, the researchers said. “The flare occurred on the right timescale, and in the right location, to be coincident with the gravitational-wave event,” Graham said. “We conclude that the flare is likely the result of a black hole merger, but we cannot completely rule out other possibilities.”

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