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GeekWire

NASA and DARPA team up on nuclear rocket program

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has taken on NASA as a partner for a project aimed at demonstrating a nuclear-powered rocket that could someday send astronauts to Mars.

DARPA had already been working with commercial partners — including Blue Origin, the space venture created by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, as well as Seattle-based Ultra Safe Nuclear Technologies, or USNC-Tech — on the Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations program, also known as DRACO. USNC-Tech supported Blue Origin plus another team led by Lockheed Martin during an initial round of DRACO design work.

Now DARPA and NASA will be working together on the next two rounds of the DRACO program, which call for a commercial contractor to design and then build a rocket capable of carrying a General Atomics fission reactor safely into space for testing. The current plan envisions an in-space demonstration in fiscal year 2027.

“With the help of this new technology, astronauts could journey to and from deep space faster than ever – a major capability to prepare for crewed missions to Mars,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said today in a news release.

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Universe Today

Webb pioneer gives advice to future telescope builders

After a quarter-century of development, NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope is a smashing success. But senior project scientist John Mather, a Nobel-winning physicist who’s played a key role in the $10 billion project since the beginning, still sees some room for improvement.

Mather looked back at what went right during JWST’s creation, as well as what could be done better the next time around, during a lecture delivered today at the American Astronomical Society’s winter meeting in Seattle.

The seeds for JWST were planted way back in 1989, a year before the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope. Mather said the scientists who were planning for what was initially known as the Next Generation Space Telescope took a lesson from the problems that plagued Hubble — problems that required an on-orbit vision correction.

“No. 1 lesson from Hubble program was, figure out how you’re going to do this before you do it, and make sure the technologies are mature,” he said.

The JWST team designed a segmented mirror that could be folded up for launch, and then unfolded in space to create a 21-foot-wide reflective surface. An even wider sunshade blocked out the sun’s glare as the telescope made its observations from a vantage point a million miles from Earth.

Mather cycled through the new space telescope’s greatest hits — including a deep-field view with a gravitational-lensing galaxy cluster that brought even more distant objects into focus. “There is actually a single star which is magnified enough that you can recognize it in the image,” Mather said. “When we talked about this in the beginning, I thought the odds of this happening are too small. … I am completely stunned with this result.”

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GeekWire

Webb Space Telescope scores big at astronomy meet-up

It’s not yet clear whether the Seahawks will be in the Super Bowl, but Seattle is in the spotlight this week for the “Super Bowl of Astronomy” — and there’s already an obvious choice for MVP.

NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope is taking center stage at the 241st meeting of the American Astronomical Society, which has drawn more than 3,400 masked-up registrants to the Seattle Convention Center to share astronomical research and figure out their next moves on the final frontier.

The twice-a-year AAS meetings are often compared to scientific Super Bowls — although the fact that this week’s meeting came on the heels of the soccer world’s biggest event led the National Science Foundation’s NOIRLab to call it the “World Cup of Astronomy and Astrophysics” instead.

This is the second post-pandemic, in-person meeting for AAS, following up on last June’s AAS 240 meeting in Pasadena, Calif. The $10 billion James Webb Space Telescope was launched a little more than a year ago, but the telescope’s first full-color images and science data weren’t released until July — a month after AAS 240. That makes this week’s gathering something of a coming-out party for JWST.

Jane Rigby, an astrophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center who serves as JWST’s operations project scientist, said there’s “nothing but good news” about the telescope’s performance. “The science requirements are met or exceeded across the board,” she said during a plenary lecture. “It’s just all so gorgeous.”

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GeekWire

A flying boat for Titan? It could happen…

NASA says it’ll distribute up to $2.45 million to 14 teams in support of experimental projects that would be right at home in the pages of a science-fiction novel — including a plan to send a flying boat to study the smoggy atmosphere and hydrocarbon-rich lakes of Titan.

The unconventional Titan probe was proposed by a former Boeing mechanic in Gig Harbor, Wash., who says his space venture — Planet Enterprises — is “pretty much a one-man band,” at least for now.

Two other researchers based in the Seattle area also won Phase 1 grants in the latest round of awards by the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts program, or NIAC. Each nine-month Phase 1 study grant is worth $175,000, and successful projects could go on to win additional funding during follow-up phases.

The NIAC program is designed to support out-of-this-world ideas that could eventually become reality. “These initial Phase 1 NIAC studies help NASA determine whether these futuristic ideas could set the stage for future space exploration capabilities and enable amazing new missions,” Michael LaPointe, program executive for NIAC at NASA Headquarters, explained in a news release.

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GeekWire

The year in aerospace: Why 2022 could be Year One

A few years from now, we just might look back at 2022 as Year One for a new age in aerospace: It was the year when NASA’s next-generation space telescope delivered the goods, when NASA’s moon rocket aced its first flight test, and when an all-electric passenger plane built from the ground up took to the skies.

I’ve been rounding up the top stories in space on an annual basis for 25 years now (starting with the Mars Pathfinder mission in 1997), and 2022 ranks among the biggest years when it comes to opening up new frontiers on the final frontier. The best thing about these frontier-opening stories — especially the James Webb Space Telescope and the Artemis moon program — is that the best is yet to come.

Check out my top-five list for the big stories of the past year, plus five aerospace trends to watch in the year ahead.

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GeekWire

NASA calls an end to Mars InSight lander’s mission

Four years after engineers cheered the landing of the robotic InSight spacecraft on Mars, NASA today declared an end to the $830 million quake-detecting mission.

In a mission update, NASA said the control team at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory failed to contact the lander in two consecutive attempts — which had previously been set as the criterion for ending the mission. Dust had been building up on the probe’s solar panels, and mission planners concluded that the batteries finally ran out of power. The last time NASA heard from Mars InSight was on Dec. 15.

JPL’s Deep Space Network will continue to listen for signals from the spacecraft, but further contact is considered unlikely.

Those involved in the mission chose to concentrate on InSight’s achievements rather than its setbacks. InSight’s primary purpose was to record seismic readings emanating from the Red Planet’s interior. The mission detected 1,319 Marsquakes in all, including quakes caused by meteor impacts. In May, the spacecraft’s seismometer recorded the largest quake ever detected on a planet other than Earth.

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GeekWire

Orion’s round-the-moon odyssey ends with splashdown

NASA’s uncrewed Orion capsule passed its final exam today, surviving a fiery atmospheric re-entry and splashing down in the Pacific Ocean at the end of a round-the-moon test flight.

The 25.5-day Artemis 1 mission set the stage for future moon trips with astronauts aboard, 50 years after the last Apollo moon mission.

“From Tranquility Base to Taurus-Littrow to the tranquil waters of the Pacific, the latest chapter of NASA’s journey to the moon comes to a close,” NASA spokesman Rob Navias said as Orion settled in the waters off the coast of Baja California at 9:40 a.m. PT. “Orion, back on Earth.”

Orion’s odyssey began in mid-November with the first-ever launch of NASA’s giant Space Launch System rocket, and traced a route that came as close as 80 miles to the lunar surface and ranged as far out as 40,000 miles beyond the moon. Orion traveled 1.4 million miles in all.

On the way back to Earth, cameras mounted on the spacecraft’s solar array wings sent back spectacular imagery of our planet looming larger in Orion’s metaphorical windshield. Once the spacecraft jettisoned its European-built service module, a set of thrusters built at Aerojet Rocketdyne’s facility in Redmond, Wash., controlled the capsule’s orientation for atmospheric re-entry.

Mission managers said Orion’s descent ranked among the sternest tests of the mission. As the spacecraft hit the top part of the atmosphere at a velocity of nearly 25,000 mph, Orion’s heat shield had to weather temperatures around 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit. After that trial by fire, parachutes slowed the descent further, allowing the spacecraft to hit the ocean at about 20 mph.

Navias said it was a “textbook entry.”

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GeekWire

Orion spacecraft takes its last close look at the moon

NASA’s Orion capsule fired its main engine for three and a half minutes today during a close approach to the moon, executing a maneuver that’s meant to put the spacecraft on course for a splashdown in six days.

Orion came within 80 miles to the lunar surface during what’s expected to be the final large maneuver of its 25.5-day Artemis 1 mission. Today’s maneuver had to succeed in order to bring the uncrewed spacecraft back to Earth intact. The only other firings on the schedule are aimed at making tweaks in the trajectory.

Artemis 1, which began with the first-ever liftoff of NASA’s giant Space Launch rocket on the night of Nov. 15, is a test flight designed to blaze a trail for future crewed missions to the moon. The SLS sent Orion on a looping course that took advantage of the moon’s gravitational pull and ranged as far as 40,000 miles beyond the moon.

Although there are no astronauts aboard Orion this time, the seats are filled by three mannequins that have been hooked up with sensors to monitor radiation exposure, temperature levels and other factors that might affect future fliers.

There’s also an experimental, Alexa-style AI assistant code-named Callisto, which was built for NASA by Amazon in collaboration with Cisco and Lockheed Martin. Ground controllers and VIPs, including “Hidden Figures” actress Taraji P. Henson, have been using Callisto to check in with the capsule during the mission.

Debbie Korth, NASA’s Orion deputy program manager, said Callisto’s users found the system to be “very interactive, very engaging in terms of being able to talk to the spacecraft, turn lights on and off, write notes, play music, ask questions.”

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GeekWire

Orion watches a weird Earth eclipse from farthest frontier

Halfway into its 25.5-day uncrewed Artemis 1 mission, NASA’s Orion capsule today recorded a weird kind of Earth-moon eclipse, reached its farthest distance from our planet and began the trek back home.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson marveled at the milestones achieved in the Artemis program, aimed at sending astronauts to the lunar surface by as early as 2025.

“Artemis 1 has had extraordinary success and has completed a series of history-making events,” he told reporters at a news briefing. “For example, on Friday, for the first time, a human-rated spacecraft successfully entered that orbit for Artemis, one called a distant retrograde orbit. And then, on Saturday, Orion surpassed the distance record for a mission with a spacecraft designed to carry humans into deep space. … And just over an hour ago, Orion set another record, clocking its maximum distance from Earth, 270,000 miles.”

The mission evokes the spirit of the Apollo program, which sent NASA astronauts to the lunar surface 50 years ago. To cite just one example, Artemis 1 broke the distance record set by Apollo 13 back in 1970. “Artemis builds on Apollo,” Nelson said. “Not only are we going farther and coming home faster, but Artemis is paving the way to live and work in deep space in a hostile environment, to invent, to create, and ultimately to go on with humans to Mars.”

Cameras mounted on Orion’s solar array wings have been recording images of Earth, the moon and the spacecraft itself since the capsule’s Nov. 15 launch atop NASA’s giant Space Launch System rocket. Today, the orbital alignment was just right to capture pictures of the moon passing in front of Earth’s disk — which meant contact with Earth was temporarily cut off during the eclipse.

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GeekWire

Orion capsule sets a record with far-out lunar orbit

NASA’s uncrewed Orion capsule successfully executed an engine burn to enter an unusual type of orbit around the moon on the 10th day of the weeks-long Artemis 1 mission, and it set a distance record on the 11th day.

During the Nov. 25 course correction, the orbital maneuvering system engine on Orion’s European-built service module fired for 88 seconds as the capsule traveled more than 57,000 miles above the lunar surface.

“It looks like we had a good burn,” NASA spokeswoman Chelsey Ballarte said from Mission Control in Houston.

The firing ensured that Orion will trace what’s known as a distant retrograde orbit, ranging out as far as 268,552 miles from Earth. Today, the capsule broke the 248,655-mile record for the farthest distance from Earth traveled by spacecraft designed to carry humans to space and bring them home safely. The previous record was set by Apollo 13 in 1970.

After making half of a long-distance orbit, Orion will fire its engine again to start setting itself up for the homeward trip, ending with a splashdown in the Pacific Ocean on Dec. 11.