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Universe Today

FAA OKs Virgin Galactic’s space passenger service

Virgin Galactic says it’s received the Federal Aviation Administration’s go-ahead to fly customers on its SpaceShipTwo rocket plane, marking a significant step in a commercial rollout that could also feature dueling space billionaires.

The FAA’s clearance came in the form of an update to Virgin Galactic’s five-year-old commercial space transportation operator license, the company said today in a news release. The upgrade was based on an analysis of the results from Virgin Galactic’s most recent suborbital test flight, conducted in May at Spaceport America in New Mexico.

During that flight, two test pilots guided the rocket-powered SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity beyond the 50-mile mark that the FAA considers the boundary of outer space. (That’s lower than the internationally accepted boundary of 100 kilometers or 62 miles, known as the Karman Line.)

“The flight performed flawlessly, and the results demonstrate the safety and elegance of our flight system,” Virgin Galactic CEO Michael Colglazier said. “Today’s approval by the FAA of our full commercial launch license, in conjunction with the success of our May 22 test flight, give us confidence as we proceed toward our first fully crewed test flight this summer.”

Months ago, Colglazier said that four Virgin Galactic employees would join two test pilots on that flight — and that Virgin Galactic’s billionaire founder, Richard Branson, would go on the test flight after that. But that was before Amazon’s billionaire founder, Jeff Bezos, said he planned to ride Blue Origin’s suborbital spaceship on July 20.

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Universe Today

UFO report lends respectability to strange sightings

After months of anticipation, U.S. intelligence experts have released a report citing 18 incidents since 2004 in which unidentified flying objects — or unidentified aerial phenomena, to use the Pentagon’s term — appeared to demonstrate breakthrough technologies.

The nine-page, unclassified version of the report doesn’t describe the incidents in detail, and doesn’t attribute them to aliens. But it suggests they’re not linked to existing U.S. military technologies.

The point of the report, produced by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence in response to a congressional mandate, is to assess the potential threat posed by the anomalous aerial phenomena reported by U.S. military fliers over the years, whether you call them UFOs or UAPs.

Intelligence experts said they didn’t have enough data to get a firm fix on the nature of 143 out of 144 UAP reports that were filed between 2004 and this March. The one case they said they could resolve “with high confidence” was attributed to a large, deflating balloon.

Their conclusion was that UAP sightings should get more attention.

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Universe Today

NASA orders up a double shot of Venus missions

NASA’s planetary science program is making a big bet on Venus, after decades of putting its chips on Mars in the search for hints of past or present life out there in the solar system.

The bet comes in the form of a double dose of development funding for Discovery Program missions, amounting to as much as $1 billion. Both DAVINCI+ and VERITAS were selected from a field of four finalists in a competitive process — leaving behind missions aimed at studying Jupiter’s moon Io and Neptune’s moon Triton.

“These two sister missions are both aimed to understand how Venus became an inferno-like world capable of melting lead at the surface,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said today in his first “State of NASA” address. “They will offer the entire science community the chance to investigate a planet we haven’t been to in more than 30 years.”

Lessons from Venus, which underwent a runaway greenhouse effect early in its existence, could improve scientists’ understanding of our own planet’s changing climate. The missions could also address one of the biggest questions about the second rock from the sun: whether life could exist in the upper reaches of its cloud layer.

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Universe Today

Record-setting astronaut will lead private space mission

Astronaut Peggy Whitson already has her name in the history books, but now there’s a new entry to add: first woman named to head up a privately funded space mission.

Whitson was the first woman to command the International Space Station and the oldest woman to fly in space (57, in 2017). She holds the U.S. record for most cumulative time in space (665 days) as well as the world record for most spacewalks by a woman (10).

Her new claim to fame comes courtesy of Texas-based Axiom Space, which announced today that Whitson will be the commander of the company’s second orbital mission for private astronauts. The mission known as Ax-2 would follow up on Ax-1, due to visit the International Space Station as early as January.

Another spaceflier who retired from NASA, Michael Lopez-Alegria, is commanding Ax-1 — with three Axiom customers flying alongside him. Whitson is serving as the backup commander for Ax-1.

One of Whitson’s crewmates for Ax-2 will be mission pilot John Shoffner, who is an airplane pilot, a champion GT racer and a supporter of life science research who hails from Knoxville, Tenn.

Whitson and Shoffner will test techniques for single-cell genomics in zero-G on the space station, in collaboration with 10x Genomics.

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Universe Today

Virgin Galactic reaches space frontier over New Mexico

Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo rocket plane crossed its 50-mile-high space boundary over New Mexico for the first time today, after months of challenges.

The trip by VSS Unity marks the first time a spacecraft has been launched so high from a New Mexico spaceport. Unity passed the 50-mile mark twice during tests at California’s Mojave Air and Space Port, in 2018 and 2019. Since then, the plane and its WhiteKnightTwo carrier airplane, dubbed VMS Eve, have been transferred to their operational home base at New Mexico’s Spaceport America.

“Today’s flight sees New Mexico become the third U.S. state to launch humans to space,” after Florida and California, Virgin Galactic said in a post-mission press release.

Virgin Galactic goes with the U.S. Air Force’s 50-mile definition for the boundary of space — rather than the internationally recognized 100-kilometer (62-mile) boundary, known as the Karman Line.

Today’s flight followed the standard profile for a SpaceShipTwo trip: The twin-fuselage Eve made an airplane-style takeoff from Spaceport America with Unity bolted to its underbelly. Around the target altitude of 44,000 feet, Unity was released from its mothership and fired up its hybrid rocket engine to rise spaceward.

Test pilots Dave Mackay and CJ Sturckow guided Unity to its peak altitude of 55.45 miles, cheered on by Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson and other VIPs who gathered at Spaceport America.

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Rival billionaires both play roles in MethaneSAT

Billionaires Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk are usually rivals on the final frontier, but they both have a role to play in MethaneSAT, a privately backed satellite mission aimed at monitoring methane emissions.

Last November, the Bezos Earth Fund made a $100 million grant to the Environmental Defense Fund to support the satellite’s completion and launch. That grant was part of a $791 million round that Bezos said was “just the beginning of my $10 billion commitment” to address challenges brought on by climate change.

Now MethaneSAT LLC — a subsidiary of Environmental Defense Fund — is announcing that it’s signed a contract with Musk’s SpaceX to send the satellite into orbit on a Falcon 9 rocket by as early as October 2022.

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Chinese probe delivers moon samples to Earth

A Chinese probe has delivered the first samples to be collected from the moon in more than 40 years, and its mission isn’t done yet.

The Chang’e-5 sample return capsule floated down to the snowy plains of Inner Mongolia, capping an odyssey that began less than a month ago with the launch of a nine-ton spacecraft from south China’s Wenchang Space Launch Center.

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Virgin Galactic’s first New Mexico space shot fizzles

Virgin Galactic lit up SpaceShipTwo’s rocket motor for the first time in the skies over New Mexico today, but only for an instant before the engine shut down and the plane glided back to a safe landing at Spaceport America.

The flight test team had hoped that the SpaceShipTwo craft known as VSS Unity might make it all the way to the 50-mile space milestone with two test pilots at the controls.

Unity has made it that high up twice before, in 2018 and 2019, when the test operation was based at Mojave Air and Space Port in California — but this was the first powered test flight planned since operations moved to Spaceport America.

Today’s outing followed up on two glide tests conducted in May and June of this year. All appeared normal during the flight’s early phases. VSS Unity was carried into the air by its twin-fuselage mothership, known as WhiteKnightTwo VMS Eve, and was released to fly free at an altitude of more than 40,000 feet.

webcast provided via NASASpaceflight.com showed the flash of the plane’s hybrid rocket motor lighting up, but only for a second.

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Robotic Chinese spacecraft dock in lunar orbit

Two robotic Chinese spacecraft have docked in lunar orbit for the first time ever, in preparation for sending samples from the Moon to Earth.

The lunar ascent module for China’s Chang’e-5 mission was captured by the metal claws of the mission’s orbiter at 5:42 a.m. Beijing time Dec. 6 (1:42 p.m. PT Dec. 5), the China National Space Administration reported.

Over the half-hour that followed, a canister containing lunar material was safely transferred to the orbiter’s attached Earth-return capsule. In the days ahead, the ascent module will be jettisoned, and the orbiter will fire its thrusters to carry the return capsule back toward Earth.

If all proceeds according to plan, the orbiter will drop off the return capsule for its descent to Inner Mongolia sometime around Dec. 16, with the exact timing dependent on the mission team’s analysis of the required trajectory. That would mark the first return of fresh material from the Moon since the Soviet Luna 24 spacecraft accomplished the feat back in 1976.

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Japan’s Hayabusa 2 probe drops off bits of an asteroid

Japan’s Hayabusa 2 probe zoomed past Earth today and dropped off a capsule containing bits of an asteroid, finishing a six-year round trip.

But the mission is far from over: While Hayabusa 2’s parachute-equipped sample capsule descended to the Australian Outback, its mothership set a new course for an encounter with yet another asteroid in 2031.

Hayabusa 2’s prime objective was to deliver bits of Ryugu, an asteroid that’s currently 7.2 million miles from Earth. Mission controllers at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, or JAXA, cheered and laughed when word came that the capsule had survived atmospheric re-entry.

Imagery captured by tracking cameras — and from the International Space Station — showed the capsule streaking like a fireball across the sky as it decelerated from an initial speed of more than 26,000 mph.