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Archive for November, 2014

NASA seeks proposals for deep space exploration, journey to Mars

Washington DC (SPX)

Oct 29, 2014

NASA is soliciting proposals for concept studies or technology development projects that will be necessary to enable human pioneers to go to deep space destinations such as an asteroid and Mars.

Through the release of a Broad Area Announcement (BAA), the agency seeks to use public-private partnerships to share funding to develop advanced propulsion, habitation and small satellite capabilities that will enable the pioneering of space.

Public-private partnerships of this type help NASA stimulate the U.S. space industry while working to expand the frontiers of knowledge, capabilities and opportunities in space.

NASA intends to engage partners to help develop and build a set of sustainable, evolvable, multi-use space capabilities that will enable human pioneers to go to deep space destinations. Developing capabilities in three key areas – advanced propulsion, habitation, and small satellites deployed from the Space Launch System – is critical to enabling the next step for human spaceflight.

This work will use the proving ground of space around the moon to develop technologies and advance knowledge to expand human exploration into the solar system.

State-of-the-art solar electric propulsion technology currently employed by NASA generates less than five kilowatts. The Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) BAA selected proposals for concepts developing systems in the 40-kilowatt range. NASA now is seeking to advance the technology to 50- to 300-kilowatt systems to meet the needs of a variety of mission concepts.

Orion is the first component of human exploration beyond low-Earth orbit and will be capable of sustaining a crew of four for 21 days in deep space and returning them safely to Earth. NASA seeks proposals for concept studies, technology investigation, and concepts of operations to enable extended space habitation as the next foundational cornerstone of a future deep space transit capability.

The studies will help define the architecture and subsystems of a modular habitation capability, which will be used to augment planned missions around the moon as well as to provide initial operations and testing in the proving ground for future systems in support of human exploration in deep space.

Studies can address transportation, habitation, operations or environmental capabilities of a habitation system.

This BAA also provides for the selection of proposals for the development and delivery of small satellite missions that address strategic knowledge gaps for future human exploration.

Selected small satellites, known as cubesats, will fly as secondary payload missions on Exploration Mission-1. The mission provides a rare opportunity to boost these cubesats to deep space and enable science, technology demonstration, exploration or commercial applications in that environment.

Through awards from this BAA, NASA’s goal is to accomplish both near-term missions and sustained investments in technologies and capabilities to address the challenges of deep space exploration. Because capabilities and technologies developed through these awards will have significant potential commercial applications, NASA expects partners to contribute significant resources.

Eligible applicants from U.S. companies, non-profit organizations, and international institutions must submit proposals electronically by 4:30 p.m. EST Dec. 12. BAA awards are subject to the availability of funding. NASA may not make any awards until the agency receives fiscal year 2015 appropriations, or may choose to award only in specific areas and reserve the remaining awards pending final appropriations for the fiscal year.

Source: Space-Travel.


US space budget still exceeds rest of world’s combined

Washington DC (SPX)

Oct 29, 2014

The United States spends on space programs – both civilian and defense-related – more than every other country combined, even though the NASA budget, which is a part of the program, has not grown in the recent years.

Last year the US spent about $40 billion on its space program, as China’s space budget, which is the second largest in the world, was about $11 billion in 2013; the next, Russia’s, was roughly $8.6 billion; and India’s, the fourth largest, was about $4.3 billion, says a new report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

The report is a statistical overview of the global space sector and its contributions to economic activity, providing indicators and statistics based on both official and private data, in over forty countries with space programs.

The US space budget is divided between NASA and a number of other institutions such as the Department of Defense, Department of Energy, the Department of Transportation (Office of Commercial Space Transportation), the Department of Commerce’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Department of the Interior’s Geological Survey (USGS) and some others.

Last year NASA spent almost 18 billion of $40 billion counted by the OECD. The funding has been lowered since 2011, when the Shuttle program, operated 1981-2011, was stopped. The peak in US space spending was in 2009, when it invested $47.5 billion in exploration.

In 2014 over $5.1 billion was spent on scientific programs and over $5.2 billion for aeronautics, space technology and exploration. NASA scientific programs include Earth science ($1.785 billion), planetary science ($1.192 billion) and astrophysical programs ($659.4 million).

All these programs comprise numerous missions to study and explore the Earth, the Moon and planets of the Solar system. Some of the most famous are the Curiosity rover on Mars and the Cassini mission on Saturn. NASA takes significant part in International Space Station’s work as well.

However, NASA is often criticized for unreasonable spending.

NASA’s internal watchdog criticized the agency in September for its lacklustre management of a program intended to identify and monitor asteroids that could be potentially dangerous to Earth – Near Earth Objects project (NEO).

NASA Inspector General Paul K. Martin said the program is nowhere near meeting its stated goal. He noted that the lack of progress came even though NASA’s budget for the NEO program has increased significantly over the past five years. During fiscal year 2014, the program was granted $40 million by Congress. Previously, it was working with $4 million.

“We believe the program would be more efficient, effective and transparent were it organized and managed in accordance with standard NASA research program requirements,” Martin said in his report.

The US space agency is also extending the Opportunity Mars rover’s mission no matter what, sources in NASA told the media. The rover was meant to be abandoned in 2013 after 10 years of use as it suffered constant mechanical glitches and flash memory issues which caused several computer resets. Its mission has been accomplished but NASA still wants to continue using it.

Source: Space-Travel.


China’s Main Competitor in Space Exploration is India, Not Russia

Moscow (RIA Novosti)

Oct 29, 2014

China’s principal competitor in space exploration is India, not Russia, researcher at the Russian Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies Vasily Kashin told RIA Novosti on Friday.

“China and India are two new space powers. They have vast resources and consider their space programs from the national prestige perspective ,” the expert said.

He added that China and India are following Russian and US footsteps in space exploration.

“China’s more developed space-rocket industry and immense resources have let it take the lead in the two countries’ space race,” Kashin argued.

Despite being behind China in space exploration, India has a significant advantage, according to the researcher.

“China is still under rigid restrictions on any form of cooperation with the United States, including on the purchase of components…The Chinese are forced to do many things on their own and they sometimes cannot produce components of a required level. The Indians have less resources, but they are in good relations with everyone. India can cooperate with both Russia and the West, adopting their best technologies,” Kashin concluded.

Earlier on Friday, China launched an experimental spacecraft to the moon orbit, which is to return to Earth in eight days. The spacecraft is to test out re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere for the planned 2017 Chang’e-5 lunar mission.

Source: Space Daily.


Mars 2020 Will Continue Search for Habitability

Moffet Field CA (NASA)

Oct 29, 2014

How habitable was Mars in the past? Since the Curiosity rover touched down on Mars in August 2012, it has helped answer a few of these questions in the area surrounding its equatorial landing site of Gale Crater.

Most notably, in March 2013, Curiosity investigators announced extensive evidence of a lake bed or river system in a region that NASA dubs ‘Yellowknife Bay.’ The environment, which could be a favorable spot for microbes, includes minerals such as clays that are formed in waters that once existed there.

The waters themselves were probably not too salty or acidic, geologic evidence shows, which gives further credence that life could have been possible on the Red Planet.

Curiosity is now preparing to ascend its prime target – Mount Sharp (Aeolis Mons). NASA isn’t going to stop there, however. The agency is readying a successor rover to follow on the heels of Curiosity.

Mars 2020, as it’s currently called, will have improved instruments over Curiosity. The new rover is heavily based on the Curiosity design, and as with its predecessor it will be able to search for habitable environments.

But Mars 2020 would also look directly for evidence of life, something Curiosity was not designed to do. This will make choosing a landing site crucial, since it would involve finding a spot where water or volcanic activity was present in the past. These processes provide energy for microbes.

“It will be a multi-year, hundreds of people effort to choose the landing site for 2020,” said Jim Bell, a planetary scientist at Arizona State University’s School of Earth and Space Exploration.

“There are lots of great places to go. The finalist sites for Curiosity are already listed for consideration,” he added.

These sites include Holden Crater, which scientists suspect may have been a lake system, and Eberswalde Crater, a possible ancient lake bed.

Picture zoom for science

Mars 2020’s success will depend heavily on the seven instruments the rover is expected to carry to the Red Planet. The shortlisted instruments will have capabilities that range from taking pictures, to doing chemical composition analysis of the surface, to probing for organics, chemicals and carbon dioxide.

The seven instruments include:

+ Mastcam-Z, a camera system that can zoom, take panorama images or spectroscopic images. Principal investigator: Jim Bell, Arizona State University

+ SuperCam, an instrument that can sense organic compounds in rocks and regolith through mineralogy and chemical composition analysis. Principal investigator: Roger Wiens, Los Alamos National Laboratory, Los Alamos, New Mexico.

+ Planetary Instrument for X-ray Lithochemistry (PIXL), which is designed to look for elements in the Martian surface. Principal investigator: Abigail Allwood, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California.

+ Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman and Luminescence for Organics and Chemicals (SHERLOC), which will examine the spectrum of surface samples to learn what they are made of, and possibly to find organic compounds. Principal investigator: Luther Beegle, JPL.

+ Mars Oxygen ISRU Experiment (MOXIE), a device that will try to produce oxygen from the atmosphere of Mars, which is made up of carbon dioxide. Principal investigator: Michael Hecht, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

+ Mars Environmental Dynamics Analyzer (MEDA), a sort of weather station that will provide information on conditions around the rover such as temperature, humidity, dust size and shape, and wind speed and direction. Principal investigator: Jose Rodriguez-Manfredi, Centro de Astrobiologia, Instituto Nacional de Tecnica Aeroespacial, Spain.

+ Radar Imager for Mars’ Subsurface Exploration (RIMFAX), which will use radar to probe underground to see what geology is there. Principal investigator: Svein-Erik Hamran, Forsvarets Forskning Institute, Norway.

While many of these instruments are new technologies, Mastcam-Z stems from a proven technology on Mars. Predecessors of this instrument flew on Curiosity, as well as on the Spirit and Opportunity rovers, which landed on the Red Planet in 2004. While Spirit ceased transmissions in 2010, Opportunity is still roaming the surface and taking pictures with that instrument.

With Curiosity, it’s very difficult to get stereo images from its pair of cameras, Bell said. To do that, investigators have to combine nine images from a wide-angle camera, and a single one from a narrow-angle camera of higher resolution.

“That’s a lot of data volume and there’s not a lot of bandwidth from Mars,” Bell said.

The new Mastcam system is able to zoom, meaning that investigators can match the focal length between the cameras and make the stereo images. This is not only important for rover navigation, but also to direct the rover’s science.

Pictures are an important public relations tool, but for the scientists it establishes relationships between outcrops and sand dunes, provides a view of layers of rock, and guides the investigators on where to probe next.

“You can’t scoop everywhere, it takes weeks to do those activities, so you have to winnow places down using the cameras. Their resolution and color capability help identify the best possible places,” Bell said.

Proof of life?

Luther Beegle’s instrument, SHERLOC, has been ongoing since about 1998, and was most recently funded under the Astrobiology Science and Technology Instrument Development Program grant that was awarded to Deputy PI Rohit Bhartia.

This time around, the investigators made sure to design the proposal to meet the Mars 2020 requirements, and received approval to go ahead.

The instrument auto-focuses on an image, then scans a laser beam across a 7 x 7 millimeter area. It performs fluorescence spectroscopy to identify organics and Raman spectroscopy to look at the vibrations of individual molecules.

All ringed organic molecules fluoresce in distinctive ways, which is where the search for organics comes in. If investigators detect the signal of organics using this instrument, it would be a first step to looking for evidence of current life on Mars. (Organics can be produced from both biological and non-biological processes, so they are not definitive proof that life exists.)

Beegle emphasized that even if the organics are living, the laser will not hurt them.

“At such low power we don’t see any disruption of organic molecules. The number of photons we use is really small.”

Before doing the scans, Beegle said it will be necessary to use an instrument to remove dust from the surface. Organics do not survive well under surface environmental conditions on Mars, but could cling to the surfaces underneath. The instrument is also designed to peer into drill holes that the rover does.

If organics are found, one key to habitability will be to see where they are located. For example, if the organics follow an individual geologic feature such as a vein, that could strengthen the case for life. But this would depend on what the instruments say, and what environment the rover is scanning.

Building oxygen

Michael Hecht’s instrument is something entirely new to Mars, but a similar technology was developed by Johnson Space Center for an earlier mission that never flew.

MOXIE has been in the works since the 1990s, when NASA was pursuing a “faster, better, cheaper” approach to Mars using small missions. A notable success to this approach was the Mars Pathfinder lander, but there were failures as well. One, called the Mars Polar Lander, never made it to the surface.

At that time, there was a sister lander to MPL in development for 2001. For that mission, Hecht was developing MECA, an instrument to study dust-related hazards to future astronauts, but NASA cancelled the mission late in development out of concern that it would meet a similar fate as MPL. Other stationary landers were planned for 2003 and 2005, but were replaced with the Spirit and Opportunity rovers instead.

“We were disappointed as scientists directly involved in the Mars Surveyor Program, but as Mars explorers really excited about how bold and daring those replacement missions were,” Hecht recalled.

MOXIE builds on the predecessor instrument, called MIPP, but is more efficient after 20 years of development, Hecht said. It proposes to create 20 grams of oxygen per hour at 99.6 percent purity on Mars to operate for the equivalent of 50 Martian days or sols.

This instrument could eventually strengthen the search for habitability because it would make it easier for humans to do investigations on the Red Planet themselves.

One major obstacle to landing people on Mars is making sure they have enough fuel and oxygen to return. If MOXIE is successful in generating oxygen in the long term, this would be an encouraging step to making Martian colonies possible in the coming decades.

Source: Mars Daily.


Orbital rocket explodes after launch

Washington DC (AFP)

Oct 28, 2014

An unmanned rocket owned by Orbital Sciences Corporation exploded Tuesday in a giant fireball and plummeted back to Earth just seconds after launch on what was to be a resupply mission to the International Space Station.

“The Antares rocket suffered an accident shortly after lift-off,” NASA mission control in Houston said, describing the blast at Wallops Island, Virginia, as a “catastrophic anomaly.”

Orbital’s unmanned Cygnus cargo ship was carrying 5,000 pounds (2,200 kilograms) of supplies for the six astronauts living at the research outpost.

After the countdown, the base of the tall, white rocket ignited on cue, then rose a short distance into the air before it suddenly exploded in a fiery blast six seconds later.

Enveloped in flames, the rocket collapsed to the ground, as a cloud of dark gray smoke rose from the wreckage.

Officials said the cost of the rocket and supplies was over $200 million, not including the damage caused on the ground.

Investigators swiftly secured the perimeter of the area and forbade any outside interviews of witnesses or staff, citing classified equipment that had been aboard the spacecraft.

As night fell, fires were seen burning at the coastal launch pad, where waves lapped at the shore.

It was unclear what caused the explosion, which occurred at 6:22 pm (2222 GMT).

“Something went wrong, and we will find out what that is,” said Frank Culbertson, executive vice president at Orbital Sciences.

He said investigators would evaluate the debris and analyze the rocket’s telemetry to uncover the exact sequence of events.

All personnel in the area were accounted for, and there were no injuries, officials said.

There was, however significant property damage at the launchpad.

It was the first nighttime launch of an Antares rocket, according to Orbital’s pre-launch blog.

Engineers said the countdown had gone smoothly, and there were no issues apparent with the machinery before the launch.

“We don’t really have any early indication of what might have failed,” Culbertson said.

Space station well-stocked

The mission, known as CRS-3, was to be Orbital’s fourth trip to the ISS, including an initial demonstration flight.

Bill Gerstenmaier, associate administrator of NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, said the space station was well-stocked and that no “absolutely critical” cargo was lost in the blast.

Orbital has a $1.9 billion contract with NASA for a total of eight supply missions.

After the US space shuttle program ended in 2011, leaving no government program to send humans to the space station, private companies raced to restore US access.

SpaceX’s Dragon was the first commercial spacecraft to make a supply journey there in 2010. Its next trip is scheduled for early December.

The Cygnus craft, which is shaped like a massive beer keg, made its first journey to the ISS in 2013.

Unlike the Dragon, which returns to Earth intact, the Cygnus burns up on re-entry to Earth’s atmosphere.

President Barack Obama was briefed on the launch failure and would continue to receive updates on the probe, the White House said.

Source: Space-Travel.


Russian Progress-M Cargo Spacecraft Undocks From ISS

Moscow (RIA Novosti)

Oct 28, 2014

The Russian M-24M cargo resupply spacecraft has undocked from the International Space Station (ISS), a spokesperson for Russian space agency Roscosmos told RIA Novosti on Monday.

“The spacecraft has undocked in normal mode at the expected time,” the spokesperson for Roscosmos said.

It was previously reported that upon leaving the ISS, the cargo spacecraft would be taking part in a scientific experiment until November 20 to study the impact of its engines on the plasma in the Earth’s ionosphere. On October 20, the spacecraft will be drowned.

The Progress M-24M space freighter that was launched from the Baikonur space center in Kazakhstan earlier in July has delivered fuel, oxygen, food, equipment for scientific experiments and parcels for the cosmonauts.

On October 29, the Progress M-25M spacecraft is expected at the space station.

Source: Space-Travel.


Wenchang to launch China’s next space station

Beijing (XNA)

Oct 28, 2014

China’s fourth space launch center, the Wenchang satellite launch center in south China’s Hainan Province, will launch the country’s space station and cargo spacecrafts.

Tao Zhongshan, chief engineer of the Xichang launch center, told Xinhua on Sunday that the new center will be used mainly for geosynchronous orbiters, large-tonnage space stations, cargo spacecraft, and large polar orbit satellites.

Wenchang has an advantage for transportation of modules of such spacecraft as it is located near a seaport. The site’s low latitude will also help the carrying capacity of rockets by about 10 percent, compared to Xichang.

The Chang’e-5 moonlander, which will collect samples and return to Earth, will be launched from Wenchang, probably in 2017.

Once put into use, Wenchang, along with the three other centers in Jiuquan, Xichang and Taiyuan, will all have their different functions.

In a recent interview, Yang Liwei, China’s first astronaut and deputy chief of China’s Manned Space Agency, said the Tiangong-2 space lab will be launched around 2016, followed by the Shenzhou-11 spacecraft and Tianzhou cargo craft to rendezvous with the lab.

A core module for space station will be launched around 2018 and the station will be completed around 2022.

Source: Space Daily.


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