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Cosmic Space

Sierra Nevada Corp. lays out its space station plan

Sierra Nevada Corp. is lifting the curtain higher on its vision for a space ecosystem featuring its orbital space planes and inflatable habitats — a vision that it says could become a reality by 2028 if NASA signs onto a public-private partnership.

This week’s big reveal at SNC Space Systems’ development center in Louisville, Colo., comes as NASA is seeking input about plans for putting commercial space stations in low Earth orbit, or LEO. NASA’s current plan calls for keeping the International Space Station in operation until at least 2028.

By the time the ISS is retired, the space agency would like to have other destinations available in LEO for astronaut training and research.

“Commercial destinations are a critical piece of our robust and comprehensive plan for transitioning low Earth orbit toward more commercial operations,” Angela Hart, NASA’s program manager for the Commercial LEO Development Program, said in a news release. “This strategy provides us and industry the best path for success.”

That’s where SNC hopes to fill a role. The company already has a deal with NASA to conduct at least seven resupply missions to the International Space Station, using an uncrewed version of its reusable Dream Chaser space plane. If all goes according to plan, the first of those flights would be sent to orbit atop United Launch Alliance’s next-generation Vulcan rocket in 2022.

SNC has continued to work on other elements of space infrastructure, including a crewed version of the Dream Chaser and inflatable modules that could provide living quarters in space or on the moon.

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Cosmic Space

A new SpaceShip and a falling Starship

Virgin Galactic rolls out the successor to SpaceShipTwo, debris from SpaceX’s failed Starship test flight sparks questions from the FAA, and Blue Origin seeks to expand its rocket manufacturing site in Florida. Get the details on the Web:

Say hello to SpaceShip III

The next iteration of Virgin Galactic’s rocket-powered space plane looks like a shinier version of SpaceShipTwo, but Space News reports that the structure of the vehicle has been adjusted to make it lighter and more efficient as well as easier to build, inspect and maintain.

The first craft in the SpaceShip III line has been christened VSS Imagine, with flight tests due to begin this summer. The second SpaceShip III, VSS Inspire, is under construction in Mojave, Calif. Virgin Galactic is still considering whether to build a third III or move ahead to a next-generation space vehicle. Meanwhile, SpaceShipTwo (a.k.a. VSS Unity) is due to take on another flight test in May, eventually leading up to suborbital space tours for paying customers.

Starship breakup sparks questions

Today wasn’t a good day for SpaceX’s Starship flight test program. The company’s latest super-rocket prototype, SN11, was launched amid obscuring fog at the Boca Chica manufacturing and test facility in South Texas. The craft blasted through the murk to an altitude of 10 kilometers, as planned, but “something significant happened shortly after landing burn start,” SpaceX CEO Elon Musk reported in a tweet. According to Ars Technica, there were indications of trouble with the rocket’s belly flop maneuver on the way down.

The result? SN11 broke up into pieces, including lots of pieces that rained down on the area around the launch pad. “At least the crater is in the right place!” Musk tweeted. He said the problem should be corrected for SN15, which is due to roll out to the launch pad in a few days. The Verge reports that the Federal Aviation Administration will oversee SpaceX’s investigation of the anomaly, and that investigators want more information about the reports of falling debris.

Blue Origin to expand rocket factory

Blue Origin New Glenn rocket factory
Blue Origin has its New Glenn rocket factory in Florida. (Blue Origin Photo)

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture is planning a major expansion of its Florida manufacturing site, the Orlando Business Journal reports. Development plans filed with Florida state officials on March 26 indicate that the company will expand into 70 acres just south of its existing Cape Canaveral campus. The acreage is an abandoned citrus grove that’s part of NASA’s property at Kennedy Space Center and is being leased to Blue Origin, according to the Orlando Business Journal. (Orlando’s WFTV picked up the report.)

Blue Origin hasn’t announced a construction timeline for the project it calls “South Campus Phase 2.” The centerpiece of the campus is a 750,000-square-foot manufacturing complex where Blue Origin’s orbital-class New Glenn rocket is being built. New Glenn is currently due to make its launch debut in late 2022.

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Cosmic Space

NASA’s SLS rocket completes engine test on second try

Two months after an intial hot-fire test ended prematurely, the four engines on the core stage of NASA’s heavy-lift Space Launch System were fired up for the full duration of eight minutes today.

The successful engine test marks a major milestone for the rocket that’s due to get an uncrewed round-the-moon test flight off the ground late this year or in early 2022 — and for an Artemis program that’s due to put astronauts on the lunar surface in the mid-2020s.

“The SLS is the most powerful rocket NASA has ever built, and during today’s test the core stage of the rocket generated more than 1.6 million pounds of thrust within seven seconds,” acting NASA Administrator Steve Jurczyk said in a news release. “The SLS is an incredible feat of engineering and the only rocket capable of powering America’s next-generation missions that will place the first woman and the next man on the moon.”

The Aerojet Rocketdyne RS-25 rocket engines are holdovers from the space shuttle program that have been refurbished for reuse on the SLS. Those engines consume more than 733,000 gallons of super-chilled liquid hydrogen and oxygen for their full duration.

During Jan. 16’s “Green Run” test at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi, the SLS core stage’s RS-25 engines fired for a little more than a minute before shutting themselves down. Engineers determined that the shutdown occurred when pressure in a hydraulic system exceeded its conservative pre-set limits. Adjustments were made for today’s second test at Stennis.

This time around, the engines fired for 499.6 seconds straight, achieving 109% of the power that would be required during the 212-foot-tall booster’s eight-minute ascent to Earth orbit. The engines were also put through a series of movements in specific patterns to direct their thrust.

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Cosmic Space

Perseverance rover’s zoom camera sees Mars in 3-D

If Martians ever golfed, the zoom camera system on NASA’s Perseverance rover could spot their golf balls from 100 yards away — but that’s not all. It can also see in colorful 3-D.

Three-dimensional perspectives of the Martian landscape can help scientists and engineers figure out the best course for the rover to follow when it’s driving autonomously around Jezero Crater. Perseverance’s navigation cameras can provide 3-D imagery in black-and-white — but for the full-color treatment, the twin zoom cameras of the Mastcam-Z system provide views that can’t be beat.

The Mastcam-Z team includes an honest-to-goodness celebrity: Brian May, who’s the lead guitarist for the rock band Queen as well as a Ph.D. astrophysicist who specializes in stereoscopic imaging. May and another technical collaborator, Claudia Manzoni, are sharing their 3-D pictures on the Mastcam-Z blog.

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Cosmic Space

Did interstellar object come from an alien Pluto?

It’s not aliens, but it could be a slimmed-down piece of an alien Pluto.

That’s the claim laid out in a pair of studies about the mysterious interstellar object known as ’Oumuamua, which passed through our solar system in 2017.

The studies, published in the AGU Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets, suggest that the flattened chunk of cosmic material consists primarily of solid nitrogen ice, much like the stuff on Pluto’s surface.

The debate over ’Oumuamua — whose name is derived from the Hawaiian phrase for “messenger from afar” — is still raging years after it zipped around the sun and headed back into the celestial darkness. Based on its trajectory, astronomers were certain it came from far beyond the solar system. But was it an asteroid? A comet? Could it even have been an alien spaceship?

Harvard astronomer Avi Loeb favored the alien hypothesis, due to ’Oumuamua’s weird shape and unusually fast getaway. He doubled down on the idea in “Extraterrestrial,” a book published in January. But the authors of the newly published studies, Arizona State University’s Steven Desch and Alan Jackson, say there’s no need to invoke aliens.

“Everybody is interested in aliens, and it was inevitable that this first object outside the solar system would make people think of aliens,” Desch said in a news release. “But it’s important in science not to jump to conclusions. It took two or three years to figure out a natural explanation — a chunk of nitrogen ice — that matches everything we know about ’Oumuamua. That’s not that long in science, and far too soon to say we had exhausted all natural explanations.”

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Cosmic Space

Russia and China make a deal for joint moon base

Russian and Chinese space officials say they’ll cooperate on the creation of a moon base known as the International Lunar Research Station — a move that could pose a challenge to NASA’s Artemis program for lunar exploration.

The memorandum of understanding for the project was signed today by Roscosmos’ director general, Dmitry Rogozin; and by Zhang Kejian, head of the China National Space Administration. The signing ceremony was conducted by videoconference.

In a statement, Roscosmos said the station will offer “open access to all interested countries and international partners, with the aim of strengthening scientific research interaction, promoting research and using outer space for peaceful purposes in the interests of all humankind.”

CNSA issued a similar statement, saying that the ILRS would be a “comprehensive scientific experiment base with the capability of long-term autonomous operation, built on the lunar surface and/or lunar orbit.” Research projects will focus on lunar exploration and utilization, moon-based observations, basic scientific studies and technical tests.

Today’s reports from China and Russia didn’t specify the time frame for building the base, but last year, Chinese officials talked about building up the ILRS in the moon’s south polar region over the course of the 2020s and 2030s, with long-term habitation by 2045.

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Cosmic Space

SpaceX’s Starship lands at last — but then blows up

SpaceX’s prototype Starship super-rocket landed upright today at the end of the program’s third high-altitude test flight — which qualifies as a big step forward, even though the rocket blew up minutes later.

There were actually two launch attempts during today’s hours-long opportunity at the company’s Boca Chica test facility in South Texas. The first one ended with an aborted ignition. In a tweet, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said the rocket’s three methane-fueled Raptor engines exceeded a “slightly conservative high thrust limit.”

SpaceX’s launch team raised the allowable thrust limit for another attempt two hours later, and this time the liftoff was picture-perfect. As was the case for SpaceX’s two earlier high-flying Starship tests — in December and February — the 160-foot-tall rocket rose majestically from its pad at the company’s Boca Chica test facility, reaching its target altitude of 10 kilometers (6.2 miles).

When the prototype, known as SN10, passed through the top of its trajectory and began its descent, it did an eyebrow-raising flip onto its belly — a maneuver designed to brake its speed on the way down. Moments before reaching the ground, SN10 executed yet another flip to return to a vertical position for a retro-rocket landing.

All that was successfully done during the earlier SN8 and SN9 test flights. The landing has been tougher to execute: Both of those earlier tests ended in a fiery crash — due to low fuel-tank pressure in December, and a faulty rocket engine in February.

This time around, the prototype spaceship landed on its feet, although it appeared to lean a bit to the side. “Starship SN10 landed in one piece!” SpaceX CEO Elon Musk exulted in a tweet.

The sense of accomplishment was dimmed only slightly minutes later when Starship caught fire while sitting on the landing pad. The massive rocket erupted in a fireball, sending Starship’s remains hundreds of feet into the air.

“SN10 re-flew a lot quicker than any of us expected,” Tim Dodd, also known as the Everyday Astronaut, joked in a tweet.

Elon Musk replied in kind: “RIP SN10, honorable discharge.”

SpaceX didn’t immediately say why the rocket exploded, but Scottish rocket scientist and YouTuber Scott Manley speculated that a rupture in the prototype’s oxygen tank was to blame.

Some observers said flames that were seen licking around the base of the rocket as it landed may have contributed to a structural failure. Others pointed to video views suggesting that at least some of the prototype’s landing legs didn’t work properly — which would explain why Starship was leaning on its landing pad.

In any case, it won’t be long until SN11 makes its way to the launch pad for the next Starship test. SpaceX is following a strategy of rapid prototyping, construction and high-altitude testing to hasten the development of a Starship capable of reaching orbit.

Eventually, SpaceX plans to launch Starship atop an even taller Super Heavy first-stage booster for trips to the moon and Mars. And the company is working on a tight timeline.

Just this week, Musk and Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa announced an update in their plans for a Starship trip around the moon. Maezawa’s crewmates for the trip are to be selected within the next few months in a global competition, and spaceflight training could begin this summer for a six-day mission that’s scheduled for 2023. “I’m highly confident that we will have reached orbit many times with Starship before 2023,” Musk said.

Update for 12:35 a.m. PT March 4: Less than 10 hours after the Starship test in Texas, SpaceX launched a Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida to put another 60 of the company’s Starlink broadband internet satellites into low Earth orbit.

After stage separation, the first-stage booster flew itself back to an at-sea touchdown on a drone ship dubbed “Of Course I Still Love You.”

Starlink satellites are built at SpaceX’s facility in Redmond, Wash. The latest batch joins more than 1,000 other satellites that are already providing connectivity to beta users.

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Cosmic Space

Japanese tycoon reboots contest for moon trip

Will the third time be the charm for Yusaku Maezawa, the Japanese entrepreneur who’s looking for company on a trip around the moon?

Two and a half years ago, Maezawa announced that he would buy a ride on SpaceX’s Starship super-rocket — and select half a dozen artists on a par with Pablo Picasso or Michael Jackson to accompany him on a flight around the moon and back (without making a lunar landing).

A year ago, Maezawa took a different tack: He set up a reality-TV contest to choose a soulmate to be by his side, and invited women from around the world to apply. A couple of weeks later, he canceled the project and apologized to the 27,722 women who signed up.

Today marks the third try: Maezawa is opening up a fresh opportunity for folks to apply for a spot on his Starship, via his dearMoon website.

“I’m inviting you to join me on this mission,” he said in a video. “Eight of you from all around the world. It will be 10 to 12 people in all, but I will be inviting eight people to come along on the ridc.”

The current plan calls for the Starship launch to take place in 2023. A Super Heavy booster would lift the Starship to Earth orbit. Then the spaceship and its crew would loop around the moon and return to Earth. The round trip would last about six days in all.

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Cosmic Space

Rover spots ‘alien skull’ and other Mars oddities

As sure as Martian winter brings on carbon dioxide frost, the release of high-resolution Mars imagery brings on a rash of alien sightings.

So it’s no surprise that today’s unveiling of a high-resolution, 360-degree panorama, based on image data from NASA’s Perseverance rover on Mars, has inspired serious and not-so-serious efforts to find anomalous shapes amid the reddish sands of Jezero Crater.

More than one sharp-eyed observer spotted a skull-shaped rock not far from the rover’s wheels. Others pointed to a bright-colored spot near the horizon — and wondered whether it might represent the wreckage of the rocket-powered “Sky Crane” descent stage that dropped the rover onto the Martian surface and then flew off to a crash landing.

The most surprising anomaly was spotted not on the panoramic image, but on one of the pictures snapped by a hazard avoidance camera just a couple of minutes after the Feb. 18 landing. A column of dust and smoke could be seen rising up from the horizon. Yes, it was coming from the dearly departed descent stage. But no, it wasn’t anywhere close to the bright-colored formation, which was probably just a rock formation gleaming in the sun.

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Cosmic Space

Cancer survivor joins private space mission

The second member of a four-person crew for what’s likely to be the first privately funded orbital space tour has been identified: She’s Hayley Arceneaux, a 29-year-old physician assistant who works at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn. — and was successfully treated for bone cancer at St. Jude almost two decades ago.

Arceneaux was invited to be part of the Inspiration4 mission weeks ago by its commander and principal funder, Shift4 Payments CEO and founder Jared Isaacman — but her identity was kept secret until today.

“It’s an incredible honor to join the Inspiration4 crew. This seat represents the hope that St. Jude gave me — and continues to give families from around the world, who, like me, find hope when they walk through the doors of St. Jude,” Arceneaux said in a news release.

“When I was just 10 years old, St. Jude gave me the opportunity to grow up. Now I am fulfilling my dreams of working at the research hospital and traveling around the world,” she said.

Arceneaux told NBC News that she and Isaacman both tried on spacesuits last weekend. “That’s what really made it real,” she said.

If the project sticks to its schedule, Isaacman, Arceneaux and two more crewmates will be sent into orbit in a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule late this year. Arceneaux would become the world’s youngest spaceflier — displacing Sally Ride, who was 32 when she became NASA’s first female astronaut in 1983. That’s assuming that one of the crew members yet to be named isn’t even younger.

One crew member is to be selected in a sweepstakes that will benefit St. Jude, while the fourth flier will be an entrepreneur who’ll be selected by a panel of judges on the basis of how he or she uses the Shift4Shop e-commerce platform. The deadline for both contests is Feb. 28. (Check the Inspiration4 website for the full set of rules.)