Universe Today

How far will NASA’s UFO studies go? Stay tuned

BOULDER, Colo. — NASA says it’s going to play a bigger role in studying what’s behind unidentified anomalous phenomena, the newfangled name for what we used to call UFOs. But exactly how should NASA step into that role? The astrophysicist who helped get the ball rolling last year as NASA’s associate administrator for science is suggesting a quick and easy way to get started.

Thomas Zurbuchen, who left NASA at the end of 2022 and is now director of ETH Zurich Space, says his old employer could add unidentified anomalous phenomena, or UAPs, to a list of targeted research topics that’s due to be released in four months or so.

“You basically say, ‘Here’s opportunities,’ and you squeeze them in,” Zurbuchen said Oct. 7 in Boulder at the ScienceWriters 2023 conference. “Generally speaking, I think it’s a lot easier to do that.”


Starfish Space will look into a plan to inspect space junk

Even as Starfish Space works to get its first orbital demonstration mission back on track, the Tukwila, Wash.-based startup has won a contract from NASA to look into an even more ambitious project to inspect orbital debris up close.

The newly announced study contract follows up on earlier work that Starfish has done to prove out features of its system for making a rendezvous with other spacecraft in orbit — and either servicing them or guiding them to their demise.

Some of those features — including Starfish’s Cetacean relative navigation software and its Cephalopod autonomous guidance software — could be tested sometime in the next few months on the company’s Otter Pup prototype spacecraft, which was sent into orbit in June but was forced into an unfortunate spin during deployment. Starfish stabilized the spin in August and is currently making sure that all of Otter Pup’s systems are in working order for future tests.

NASA’s follow-up contract, awarded through the space agency’s Small Business Innovation Research program, or SBIR, calls for Starfish Space to assess the feasibility of using its full-scale Otter satellite servicing vehicle to rendezvous with large pieces of space debris and inspect them.


NASA probe delivers asteroid sample — and moves on

Seven years and 4 billion miles after its launch, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft has successfully dropped off a capsule containing a precious sample of one near-Earth asteroid — and is now on course to rendezvous with another one in 2029.

Rocket thrusters built at Aerojet Rocketdyne’s facility in Redmond, Wash., have been guiding the bus-sized probe every step of the way.

Today marked the climax of OSIRIS-REx — which stands for Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification and Security-Regolith Explorer. The billion-dollar mission is designed to let scientists examine pristine stuff from a space rock that could shed light on the chemistry of the primordial solar system, and give them a better idea of the resources that could someday be gleaned from asteroids.

Universe Today

NASA says it’ll take on a bigger role in UFO research

In response to a new report from an independent panel, NASA says it has appointed a director in charge of research into UFOs — now known as unidentified anomalous phenomena, or UAPs — and will work with other agencies to widen the net for collecting UAP data.

“This is the first time that NASA has taken concrete action to seriously look into UAP,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said today during a news briefing at NASA’s headquarters in Washington.

NASA initially kept the name of its UAP research director under wraps, but later in the day, the agency identified him as Mark McInerney, who has previously served as NASA’s liaison to the Department of Defense on the UAP issue.

Nelson downplayed the idea that aliens were behind any of the anomalous phenomena recorded to date, but he pledged to keep an open mind.


Space leaders meet to set a course for research in orbit

About 900 members of the space community — including astronauts, government officials, researchers and industry professionals — are converging on Seattle this week for the International Space Station Research and Development Conference.

But this week’s ISSRDC event is about more than just the ISS.

The 12th annual conference, which is being held in the Pacific Northwest for the first time, comes as NASA and its commercial partners are making plans for privately operated outposts that will take the place of the ISS when it’s brought down from orbit. That fiery retirement party is currently set for the 2030-2031 time frame..

“We’re at that critical juncture,” said Patrick O’Neill, marketing and communications manager for the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space, or CASIS. The center manages the activities that the ISS takes on in its role as a national laboratory, and is the organizer of the ISSRDC.

For now, the ISS is one of only two space stations in low Earth orbit, or LEO. (The other one is China’s Tiangong space station.) But the next seven years are likely to see the launch of multiple commercial LEO destinations, which have come to be known as CLDs in NASA’s three-letter-acronym parlance. One of those CLDs could well be Orbital Reef, which is currently under development by a consortium that includes Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture.

“This conference is a great opportunity for us to learn about future avenues of inquiry that could be advantageous for other government agencies, and ways for us to build on the science that’s been done previously, so that we can segue toward those CLDs,” O’Neill told me.


DARPA and NASA pick Lockheed Martin for nuclear rocket

NASA and the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency have selected Lockheed Martin and BWX Technologies to move forward with development of a nuclear thermal rocket, or NTR, that could blaze a trail for future missions to the moon and Mars.

The Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations, or DRACO, is slated for launch in 2027.

“The DRACO program aims to give the nation leap-ahead propulsion capability,” Tabitha Dodson, DARPA’s program manager for the effort, said today in a news release. “An NTR achieves high thrust similar to in-space chemical propulsion but is two to three times more efficient. With a successful demonstration, we could significantly advance humanity’s means for going faster and farther in space and pave the way for the future deployment for all fission-based nuclear space technologies.”

Dodson told reporters that NASA and DARPA will go 50-50 on the $499 million cost of the project. The two agencies have been working together on the rocket development effort since January.


Airlines join Boeing’s team to work on eco-friendly plane

Boeing and NASA say they’ll collaborate with Seattle-based Alaska Airlines and four other major airlines on the Sustainable Flight Demonstrator project, which aims to put Boeing’s innovative X-66 braced-wing aircraft design through flight tests in the 2028-2029 time frame.

The X-66A makes use of a concept known as the Transonic Truss-Braced Wing, or TTBW, which features ultra-long, ultra-thin, drag-reducing wings that are stabilized by diagonal struts.

The demonstrator aircraft will also incorporate parallel advancements in propulsion systems, materials and system architecture. When all those factors are combined, the single-aisle X-66A should reduce fuel requirements and carbon emissions by up to 30% relative to today’s domestic airplane fleet.


NASA backs Blue Origin plan to make solar cells on moon

Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture has won $34.7 million in funding from NASA to support the development of a system for producing solar cells on the moon from materials that are available on site.

The Blue Alchemist project is one of 11 proposals winning support from the space agency’s Tipping Point program, which partners with commercial ventures to back technologies that could contribute to long-term space exploration.

“Harnessing the vast resources in space to benefit Earth is part of our mission, and we’re inspired and humbled to receive this investment from NASA to advance our innovation,” Pat Remias, vice president for Blue Origin’s Capabilities Directorate, Space Systems Development, said today in a news release. “First we return humans to the moon, then we start to ‘live off the land.’”

Blue Alchemist would use lunar regolith — the dust and crushed rock that covers the moon’s surface — as the raw material for solar cells and electrical transmission wire. Oxygen, iron, silicon and aluminum would be extracted through a process known as molten regolith electrolysis, and fed into the manufacturing process. The oxygen could be used for life support or for rocket propulsion.

Kent, Wash.-based Blue Origin has been working on the technology over the past couple of years, with Earth-produced simulants taking the place of lunar regolith.

Blue Origin is also on the team for another Tipping Point project, led by Washington, D.C.-based Zeno Power Systems. Zeno was awarded $15 million for Project Harmonia, which aims to create a new type of radioisotope power supply for the Artemis moon program that uses americium-241 as fuel.

Universe Today

Cosmic threats lead the list of public’s space concerns

Sending astronauts to the moon is OK — but more Americans think NASA should instead put a high priority on monitoring outer space for asteroids and other objects that could pose a threat to Earth, according to the Pew Research Center’s latest survey focusing on Americans’ perspectives on space policy.

The nonprofit research center’s report was released today, on the 54th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. It follows up on a similar survey that was done in 2018 to mark NASA’s 60th anniversary.

The earlier survey suggested that slightly more Americans saw monitoring climate change as a top priority (63% vs 62%). This year, the rankings were reversed, with 60% putting cosmic threats at the top of their list, as opposed to 50% for climate concerns. Only 12% of the respondents said sending astronauts to explore the moon was a top priority, and 11% said sending astronauts to Mars led their list. That translates into less support than those missions had five years ago.

The survey, conducted online from May 30 to June 4, is based on responses from 10,329 randomly selected U.S. adults who are part of the research center’s online panel. The results were weighted to reflect current demographics.


NASA’s chief is coming to Seattle area for space summit

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson will visit Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture in Kent, Wash., to get a firsthand look at the Seattle area’s growing space industry.

Tje Washington State Space Summit on July 5 will feature a trade show with nearly 20 regional space companies, plus a panel discussion that will focus on the economic opportunities opening up on the space frontier over the coming decade. The summit will be hosted by Sen. Maria Cantwell, the Washington Democrat who chairs the Senate committee that oversees NASA — and who played a leading role in passage of the $280 billion CHIPS and Science Act last year.

“Washington’s space industry has doubled in just four years, a success story our whole state can be proud of,” Cantwell said today in a news release announcing the summit. “More than 13,000 Washingtonians work in this growing industry, which will help send the first American woman to the moon and the first person to Mars.”

Cantwell said Nelson “will see for himself what new investments in the state can deliver for the nation – from high-rate composite aircraft manufacturing to building new space stations.” Boeing has been pioneering aerospace applications for carbon composites at its aircraft manufacturing facilities in the Seattle area, while Blue Origin and Marysville, Wash.-based Gravitics are among regional companies working on commercial space stations.

Nelson said that “NASA’s work with Washington commercial space companies and academic institutions demonstrates the power of investing in America.”