New Horizons – New Destination

Nasa’s New Horizons spacecraft has a new target to aim for following its historic flyby of Pluto.

New Horizons under construction. Credit: NASA
New Horizons under construction. Credit: NASA

It is called 2014 MU69, and was one of two comet-like objects that were under consideration by scientists working on the mission.

The US space agency will now carry out a review of the plan before officially approving the mission’s extension.

New Horizons carried out its flyby of Pluto in July, approaching to 12,500km from the dwarf planet’s surface.

The spacecraft captured detailed images and other data not only of Pluto, but also of its moons: Charon, Styx, Nix, Kerberos and Hydra.

The new target is about a billion and a half km beyond Pluto. It is about 45km across and is thought to be one of the building blocks from which bigger worlds such as Pluto are formed.

Such objects form a region of the outer Solar System called the Kuiper Belt, containing a deep-freeze sample of what our cosmic neighbourhood was like when it formed 4.6 billion years ago.

‘Exciting science’

“Even as the New Horizon’s spacecraft speeds away from Pluto out into the Kuiper Belt, and the data from the exciting encounter with this new world is being streamed back to Earth, we are looking outward to the next destination for this intrepid explorer,” said John Grunsfeld, head of Nasa’s Science Mission Directorate.

“We expect it to be much less expensive than the prime mission, while still providing new and exciting science.”

The spacecraft carries enough hydrazine fuel for another flyby, and scientists say it could continue operating into the late 2020s or beyond.

The mission’s principal investigator, Alan Stern, called Nasa’s selection of 2014 MU69 “a great choice”.

He added: “This KBO costs less fuel to reach [than other candidate targets], leaving more fuel for the flyby, for ancillary science, and greater fuel reserves to protect against the unforeseen.”

In summer 2014, the Hubble Space Telescope was used to discover five icy objects, later narrowed to two, within New Horizons’ flight path.

In late October and early November, the spacecraft will perform a series of engine burns to set its course toward 2014 MU69 ahead of an encounter currently set for 1 January 2019.

New Horizons

Buzz Aldrin’s Plan For Journey To Mars

It hit the news, and social media over the last few days – the story about Buzz Aldrin’s plans for a mars mission (not for him obviously, even though I bet he’d like to, he’s that kind of guy, but it’ll happen by 2040 in his vision) the new association is with the Florida Institute of Technology, and Buzz is relocating there (OMG take sandbags!)

Credit: Buzz Aldrin and Purdue University
Credit: Buzz Aldrin and Purdue University. CLICK FOR LARGER VIEW
Florida Tech’s president, Anthony J Catanese, left, talks with Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin as he shows him the campus on Thursday in Melbourne, Florida Photograph: Craig Rubadoux/AP
Florida Tech’s president, Anthony J Catanese, left, talks with Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin as he shows him the campus on Thursday in Melbourne, Florida Photograph: Craig Rubadoux/AP

While it’s great that there’s a lot of chatter about Mars finally filtering through to the mainstream media, let’s try to take a slightly more critical look at this – this is a new association with F.I.T, not a new idea – but what the heck, let’s start talking about it!

I’m guessing the mainstream interest is mostly because of the ‘Martian’ movie featuring Matt Damon and directed by Ridley Scott. The Martian is a great book, and inspiring to people thinking about Mars missions; it contains many themes that are current, and unresolved.

Creidt: Buzz Aldrin and Perdue University
Creidt: Buzz Aldrin and Perdue University

So, what’s this brand new plan all about? Well, the first thing is that it’s not so new, in a way it’s actually a few years old – that’s fine, it probably didn’t get mainstream attention in 2013, but the original details are here. It’s good stuff, from one of the most credible space advocates alive. In the document (produced in association with Perdue Univeristy, Indiana) Aldrin slams NASA’s goals, lack of funding, and also lack of cooperation with China. This is an interesting theme, expect to hear more about this, and indeed in The Martian (spoiler alert!) cooperation with China is a crucial element. He also advocates shelving NASA’s SLS system – it’s flagship program – but does endorse the Orion as the primary crew vehicle.

Credit: Buzz Aldrin and Purde University
Credit: Buzz Aldrin and Purdue University

In addition to Orion development, Aldrin’s plan envisions a NASA-crafted manned Mars Exploration Vehicle (MEV). MEVs ultimately would be placed on orbits that regularly cycle between Earth and Mars, allowing for relatively routine round-trip transportation to the Red Planet.

Companion modules, called exploration modules (XMs), would accompany both Orion and the MEV on most of their missions. XMs would provide much of the living and storage space necessitated by long-duration spaceflight. This would all involve the cancellation of NASA’s plans for manned missions to asteroids, but it would mean a return to the moon. In the past Buzz had said that going back to the moon was unimaginative, but there is a growing argument for the fact that outposts from Earth could be more easily tested on the moon as a stage in the Mars  process.

Let’s hope we hear more about this plan; possibly an advocate with the profile of Buzz can actually change opinion sufficiently, but don’t forget that significant figures such as Robert Zubrin (The Mars Society) have been at it for years already. And, before we leave that topic Mars fans, don’t forget there’s only a couple more days to save the Mars Society’s GreenHab through their crowdfunding campaign because when you go to mars, you’re gonna need that!

Credit: The Mars Society
Credit: The Mars Society

Help the US Mars Society re-build their Hab – time running out with their crowdfunding campaign

This blog want to promote all activities that lead to new projects and space exploration. These days, Crowdfunding is one of the important facilitators for these projects, and time is running out to help the Mars Society raise the funds to re-build their fire-damaged GreenHab at their desert research station. With only 5 days to go in their campaign, time is running out, but you can help by visiting here

The Mars Society was created by Dr Robert Zubrin in order to promote the possibility of the Mars Direct mission to Mars, created by Zubrin and others in the light of the failure for NASA to put together an affordable manned Mars mission. The organisation carries out analogue research into the facilities and technologies needed for a Mars base.

damaged GreenHab

Damaged by fire, the Mars Society in the US is raising funds, with a target of $10,000 to repair and re-build the GreenHab. If you’re wondering why I keep saying the Mars Society US, it’s because there was a UK Chapter of the Mars Society which seems to have gone through a period of hibernation, we wrote about this in an earlier post, however the work the Mars Society in the US does is important and very much worthy of your support.

Virgin to capitulate on manned spaceflight?

It’s been 10 months since the fatal crash of Virgin’s Spaceship 2, in which pilot Michael Alsbury was killed, and now Virgin have indicated their focus will be on the small satellite market rather than manned flight. vgcrash_3414496bIs this unexpected, or does it begin to grow the odd feeling that commercial spaceflight is just harder than everyone though and isn’t going to happen? When Virgin boss George Whitesides was asked when they would be flying passengers into space his answer is reported to be

“It’ll be ready when it’s ready,” says Whitesides. “I’m hesitant to give specifics on a range of time.”

Virgin are part of the huge OneWeb deal that we’d discussed previously, and although they don’t yet have a vehicle for putting satellites into orbit, this is going to be their focus now. How do they have the credibility to win such a contract with now record of doing this already, or even the craft with which to carry out such operations? Well, having a former NASA chief of staff as heading it up in the form of George Whitesides isn’t going to hurt.

George Whitesides, Virgin Galactic CEO. Photo credit: Virgin alactic
George Whitesides, Virgin Galactic CEO. Photo credit: Virgin alactic

AC Charania, director of strategy and business development at Virgin Galactic, is bullish with his pitch to the visitors: “We are the Uber of small launch,” he claims.

On established national launch ranges, such as Cape Canaveral or the Vandenberg Air Force Base, small satellite, cubesat and pocketqube customers are secondary customers – they find out when a rocket is launching with a major project and send up their satellites – sometimes as light as a single kilogram – alongside the main mission.

“You can’t tell the big rocket where to go and you can’t tell it when to go,” says Charania. “You essentially have to get on a bus.

“With Uber, you go when you want to go, you pick the service you want – UberX or UberXL, it goes exactly where you want and it’s an easy transaction. That’s essentially the model for us.”

This programme is called LauncherOne, a two-stage rocket that is fired at an altitude of 50,000 feet from White Knight Two – the same cargo plane that will be used to shuttle space tourists into near-space. For less than $10m, you can launch a single satellite or combination of satellites with varying payloads into orbit.

This service compares to Pegasus, Virgin Galactic’s rival in the satellite launch market. “Nasa is the only real customer for Pegasus,” claims Whitesides. “It typically buys a Pegasus once every two years at a price of around $50m for a payload in the order of magnitude of 250kg. We offer the same payload at a fifth of the cost.”

So is it all about money? You bet, its certainly a factor, satellites are a growing market, with a planet hungry for ever more satellite applications, but it’s not like there isn’t money in their primary task. Before the crash in November last year, there were around 750 “future astronauts” signed up to Virgin Galactic’s space programme, paying $250,000 (£160,000) a pop for a seat on a spacecraft – SpaceShipTwo – that can reach the edge of space at an altitude of 62 miles before returning to earth.

Numbers have already fallen to 700. These steadfast customers, believed to include high-profile ticket holders Ashton Kutcher, Angelina Jolie, Kate Winslet and Stephen Hawking, represent $175m in revenue.

Space is hard, but it feels like some things are forever just over the horizon…

Rob Adlard, originally for

OnewebVirgin Galactic

Inflatable Space Structures

Have metallic structures had their day? It’s not just Bigelow who are looking at the possibilities for inflatable space structures, check out this great little video from Doug Litteken as he discusses the importance of using inflatable structures for a human mission to Mars. Doug  tackles some of the myths associated with these space vehicles. Litteken is an engineer at NASA Johnson Space Center focusing on composite and inflatable lightweight structures, and it’s good stuff!

and for some contrast, this great little video from the Smithsonian

Inflatable HabitatsSmithsonian

What is Bigelow and what are they doing?

The short answer is – A LOT! The International Space Station’s next module looks like a hot tub wrapped up in bulletproof fabric, sitting on the floor of a Las Vegas warehouse — but when the module goes into orbit later this year, NASA plans to unfold it into the outer-space equivalent of a rec room.

“This could be a very nice module potentially for the crews to go hang out in. … It may become a very popular place,” Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA’s associate administrator for human exploration and operations, told journalists who gathered Thursday at Bigelow Aerospace’s Las Vegas headquarters for the module’s unveiling.

But that’s just the start. If the experimental module works out the way NASA and Bigelow Aerospace hope it does, we could be seeing even bigger and better expandable spacecraft, including monster space blimps that have twice as much volume as the International Space Station.

Thursday’s event marked the public debut of the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module, or BEAM, which Bigelow Aerospace built under the terms of a $17.8 million contract with NASA.

Within the next few months, the BEAM module is due to be trucked east to Florida for processing. It’ll be launched as early as September from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, aboard a robotic SpaceX Dragon cargo capsule.

The Dragon will deliver BEAM to the space station in its folded-up, 5-by-7-foot (1.5-by-2-meter) configuration. Astronauts will use the station’s robotic arm to attach the module to a docking port on the U.S.-built Tranquility node — and then they’ll fill it up with air.

As it’s inflated, the module is designed to expand like an air mattress — but with a many-layered, high-tech, bulletproof skin that Bigelow compares to the steel belts in a radial tire. When fully deployed, BEAM will provide as much volume as a 10-by-12-foot (3-by-4-meter) room.

Image: Space Module
This module – known as the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module, or BEAM – will serve as an extra room on the International Space Station and also a demonstration project for future Mars transport habitats. BEAM is about 5 feet high and 7 feet wide in its folded-up configuration, but can expand to provide as much volume as a 10-by-13-foot room in orbit. Jim Seida / NBC News

NASA will conduct two years’ worth of tests to determine how well the module holds pressure, how much protection it provides from space radiation and how resilient it is to impacts with tiny bits of orbital debris.

“It’s the boring engineering stuff, but it’s the stuff that we really need to do,” Gerstenmaier said. “When we commit a spacecraft to a Mars kind of mission, you don’t want to carry any uncertainty with you … and a great place to do that is on [the space] station.”

The expandable architecture provides a way to fit a big space module into a small cargo space. NASA engineers came up with the concept in the 1990s, to address the challenge of creating habitats big enough to sustain crews during their transit to Mars.

NASA had to drop the “TransHab” concept due to budget cuts — but Bigelow Aerospace picked it up, and turned the idea into two working prototypes that were launched into orbit on Russian rockets in 2006 and 2007. Those two Genesis modules are still in orbit today.

The success of Genesis gave NASA and Bigelow the confidence to go with the BEAM. This module will serve only as a test bed — and possibly a quiet hangout for the station’s spacefliers. When the experiment is over, the module will be jettisoned to burn up in the atmosphere. That will free up the docking port for other spacecraft, Gerstenmaier said.

Image: BEAM module
This artist’s conception shows the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module attached to the International Space Station’s Tranquility node. Bigelow Aerospace

Next step: Stand-alone space stations

But that won’t spell the end of the expandables: Bigelow Aerospace is already working on scaled-up versions that will offer 330 cubic meters of volume, compared with BEAM’s 16 cubic meters. In comparison, the International Space Station has 916 cubic meters of pressurized volume.

The “B330s” would be marketed as stand-alone commercial space stations — for use by research organizations, by corporations or even by governments that don’t have NASA-size budgets.

Bigelow said he has been holding off from building the first B330s until he was sure that private-sector spaceships would be available to ferry visitors back and forth. Thanks to NASA’s support for the development of space taxis by the Boeing Co. and SpaceX, Bigelow is now confident that the spaceships will be ready sometime in the next two or three years.

“We are preparing, therefore, to produce two B330s to be able to be shipped out by the end of 2017, out of this facility, and then deployed in 2018 at some time,” Bigelow said.

Image: B330 modules
This concept for a privately owned space station shows four B330 space modules linked together. Bigelow Aerospace

Bigelow said the first B330s would be launched into low Earth orbit, like the International Space Station, but he said it was too early to specify which launch vehicle or launch site would be used.

Hiroshi Kikuchi, senior managing director of Japan Manned Space Systems Corp., told NBC News that a wide variety of clients could use the Bigelow-made stations — including manufacturing companies such as Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, a major Japanese carmaker that he declined to identify, entertainment ventures and pharmaceutical companies.

“Many companies are waiting for the opportunity to use space station commercialization,” Kikuchi told NBC News. “Bigelow Aerospace could make it happen.”

Looking ahead to the moon and Mars

A full-size mockup for an even bigger expandable module, known as the Olympus, towered over the shop floor during Thursday’s briefing. Bigelow said the Olympus would offer 2,250 cubic meters of pressurized volume — more than twice as much as the entire International Space Station.

He had no firm timetable for building the Olympus, but he said the monster module could serve as a warehouse in deep space, in lunar orbit, on the moon or on Mars. One of Bigelow’s mission concepts calls for a fleet of lunar landers to be stored inside the structure.

The Olympus would weigh somewhere between 65 and 100 tons, which means it’d have to be launched on a super-heavy-lift rocket like NASA’s Space Launch System. But the way Bigelow sees it, bigger is better when it comes to space exploration — and that’s why he predicts expandable spacecraft will be the wave of the future.

“This particular field, with no pun intended, has enormous expansion possibilities,” Bigelow said.

Original interviews from NBC

Bigelow AerospaceInflatable Habitats