Cosmic Science

Supersonic flight and suborbital science feel the boom

Boom Supersonic attracts a big-name customer, Virgin Galactic signs up another researcher for a suborbital spaceflight, and new questions are raised about NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope. Get the details on the Web:

United boosts Boom Supersonic

United Airlines says it’s agreed to buy 15 of Boom Supersonic’s faster-than-sound jets once they come onto the market. Colorado-based Boom is gearing up to start flight testing for a subscale prototype of its Overture jet, known as the XB-1. Those tests are slated to open the way for the Overture’s rollout in 2025, first flight in 2026 and the start of commercial air service at speeds of up to Mach 1.7 by 2029. That could cut Seattle-to-Tokyo travel time from 8.5 hours to 4.5 hours.

The deal makes United the first U.S. airline to sign a purchase agreement with Boom, providing a significant boost to the startup. Boom says it now has purchase agreements and options for 70 Overture jets in its order book. But wait, there’s more: The jets will be designed to use a type of sustainable aviation fuel that’s meant to allow for flight operations with net-zero carbon emissions.

Virgin Galactic signs up science star

Virgin Galactic is reserving a suborbital spaceflight on VSS Unity, its SpaceShipTwo rocket plane, for bioastronautics researcher Kellie Gerardi. During her flight, the timing of which hasn’t yet been set, Gerardi will support a bio-monitoring experiment drawn up by Carré Technologies Inc. (Hexoskin) with the support of the Canadian Space Agency, as well as a free-floating fluid configuration experiment.

Gerardi, who’s affiliated with the International Institute for Astronautical Sciences, is also known for TikTok videos and Instagram postings that explore the intersection of her career and her personal life. She joins planetary scientist Alan Stern in holding a reservation for a dedicated research flight on Virgin Galactic. Last month, the company conducted its first 50-mile-high, rocket-powered flight test from its home base at Spaceport America in New Mexico. Commercial service could begin within the coming year.

The latest buzz on the Webb Telescope

NASA is fine-tuning the schedule for this year’s launch of the James Webb Space Telescope, widely seen as the successor to the 21-year-old Hubble Space Telescope. The space agency had been targeting Oct. 31 for launch of the $10 billion observatory from French Guiana, using a European Ariane 5 rocket. But logistical complications are leading NASA to look at launch dates in November or early December.

Another complication has to do with the telescope’s name: NASA’s Paul Hertz is reported as saying at this week’s meeting of a space science advisory committee that the space agency is reviewing the historical record surrounding James Webb, the late NASA administrator after whom the telescope is named. A petition circulating among astronomers has called for a new name because of claims that Webb acquiesced to homophobic policies during the 1950s and 1960s.


NASA resets Webb Telescope launch for 2021

Webb Space Telescope
The mirror for NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope rises from a shop floor at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center during assembly. (NASA Photo)

NASA says the launch of its flagship James Webb Space Telescope is being rescheduled for no earlier than 2021, with its total price tag boosted to $9.66 billion.

That price tag includes a development cost of $8.8 billion, which breaks the $8 billion development cost cap mandated by Congress in 2011. That was the last time the Webb project went through a do-or-die debate.

“Congress will have to reauthorize Webb through this next cycle of authorization,” NASA Associate Administrator Steve Jurczyk said today during a teleconference announcing the reset.

NASA officials strongly supported going ahead with the telescope, which is in the latter stages of testing and assembly. The general-purpose telescope is expected to build on the trailblazing observations of the Hubble Space Telescope and provide unprecedented insights about exoplanets and the farthest frontiers of the observable universe.

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Fasteners come loose on Webb Space Telescope

Telescope testing
The James Webb Space Telescope’s spacecraft element undergoes acoustic testing. (NASA Photo / Chris Gunn)

NASA says it’s reviewing its options for repair and corrective action for the multibillion-dollar James Webb Space Telescope after tests shook fastening hardware off the observatory’s sunshield covers.

The issue isn’t expected to force further delays in the Webb Space Telescope’s launch, which was recently postponed to no earlier than May 2020.

Word of the loose hardware surfaced this week when Webb program director Greg Robinson referred to the issue during a presentation to the National Academies’ Space Studies Board, sparking a report in Space News. Robinson was quoted as saying “it’s not terrible news, but it’s not good news, either.”

In today’s follow-up report, NASA said it’s not uncommon for such issues to turn up during pre-launch testing. “This is an example of why space systems are thoroughly and rigorously tested on the ground to uncover imperfections and fix them prior to launch,” Robinson said in the NASA update.

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NASA delays Webb Space Telescope’s liftoff to 2020

James Webb Space Telescope
An artist’s conception shows the James Webb Space Telescope with its five-layered, foldable sunshield. Issues with the sunshield have contributed to launch delays. (NASA Illustration)

NASA is delaying the scheduled launch of its next flagship observatory, the $8.8 billion James Webb Space Telescope, by a year — which may hike its cost so high that Congress will have to OK more money.

Acting agency administrator Robert Lightfoot said that the outlook for additional delays emerged from an internal schedule review, and that a new date for the telescope’s launch on an Ariane 5 rocket would be negotiated with the European Space Agency.

For now, NASA is looking at launch in May 2020, rather than the spring of 2019 as previously planned.

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2018 turns to 2019 for Webb Space Telescope

NASA says it’s moving the launch date for its $8.8 billion James Webb Space Telescope from October 2018 to the spring of 2019, citing a longer-than-expected process of integrating elements of the house-sized spacecraft. The latest delay for the oft-postponed launch was announced Sept. 28 after a routine schedule assessment.

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All systems go for testing Webb Telescope

James Webb Space Telescope
Engineers conduct a white-light inspection on NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope in the clean room at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. (Credit: Chris Gunn / NASA)

After years of busted budgets and stretched timelines, NASA says its $8.8 billion James Webb Space Telescope is ready for testing and on track for launch in 2018.

The telescope, seen as a successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, is designed to capture images of the first galaxies ever formed and provide unprecedented data about planets circling distant stars.

“Today, we’re celebrating the fact that our telescope is finished, and we’re about to prove that it works,” Nobel-winning astrophysicist John Mather, the telescope’s senior project scientist, told reporters at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland today.

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NASA finishes huge mirror for Webb Telescope

Image: Webb Telescope mirror
The James Webb Space Telescope’s 18 mirrors are fully installed. (Credit: Chris Gunn / NASA)

NASA has put the 18th and final piece of the puzzle into place for the $8.8 billionJames Webb Space Telescope’s primary mirror – marking a major milestone on the way to the observatory’s launch in 2018.

The 21.3-foot-wide mirror is so big it couldn’t be fabricated in one piece. Instead, it’s made up of 18 hexagonal segments, each spanning a little more than 4 feet and weighing about 88 pounds. The last segment was carefully laid into place using a clawlike robotic arm at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland on Feb. 3.

“With the mirrors finally complete, we are one step closer to the audacious observations that will unravel the mysteries of the universe,” John Grunsfeld, NASA’s associate administrator for science, said in a news release.

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Universe Today

New index sizes up habitability of alien planets

Image: James Webb Space Telescope
NASA’s James Webb Telescope, shown in this artist’s conception, will provide more data about exoplanets. A new habitability index is aimed at helping scientists prioritize the search. (Credit: NASA)

Researchers at the University of Washington’s Virtual Planetary Laboratory have devised a new habitability index for judging how suitable alien planets might be for life, and the top prospects on their list are an Earthlike world called Kepler-442b and a yet-to-be confirmed planet known as KOI 3456.02.

Those worlds both score higher than our own planet on the index: 0.955 for KOI 3456.02 and 0.836 for Kepler-442b, compared with 0.829 for Earth and 0.422 for Mars. The point of the exercise is to help scientists prioritize future targets for close-ups from NASA’s yet-to-be-launched James Webb Space Telescope and other instruments.

Get the full story at Universe Today.