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NASA Contracting Development of New Ion/Nuclear Engines ( 70

schwit1 writes: NASA has awarded three different companies contracts to develop advanced ion and nuclear propulsion systems for future interplanetary missions, both manned and unmanned. These are development contacts, all below $10 million. However, they all appeared structured like NASA's cargo and crew contracts for ISS, where the contractor does all of the development and design, with NASA only supplying some support and periodic payments when the contractor achieves agreed-upon milestones. Because of this, the contractors will own the engines they develop, and will be able to sell them to other customers after development, thereby increasing the competition and innovation in the field.
United States

US and China Setting Up "Space Hotline" ( 15

Taco Cowboy writes: Washington and Beijing have established an emergency 'space hotline' to reduce the risk of accidental conflict. Several international initiatives are already in train to seal a space treaty to avoid a further build-up of weapons beyond the atmosphere. However, security experts say the initiatives have little chance of success. A joint Russia-China proposal wending its way through the UN was not acceptable to the US. An EU proposal, for a "code of conduct" in space, was having diplomatic "difficulties" but was closer to Washington's position.

MIT Helping NASA Build Valkyrie Robots For Space Missions ( 35

An anonymous reader writes: NASA announced that MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) is one of just two institutions that will receive "R5," a six-foot, 290-pound humanoid robot also known as "Valkyrie" that will serve on future space missions to Mars and beyond. A group led by CSAIL principal investigator Russ Tedrake will develop algorithms for the robot as part of NASA's upcoming Space Robotics Challenge, which aims to create more dexterous autonomous robots that can help or even take the place of humans "extreme space" missions. While R5 was initially designed to complete disaster-relief maneuvers, its main goal is now to prove itself worthy of even trickier terrain — deep space exploration.

Comet Catalina To Pass By Earth For the Final Time 54

StartsWithABang writes: Originating from the Kuiper belt and the Oort cloud, comets are generally thought of as periodic objects, with their initial trajectories having been perturbed by either Neptune, another distant object or a passing star or rogue planet. But most comets aren't periodic; they're transient instead, where a trip into the inner Solar System gives them additional gravitational perturbations, causing them to either fly into the Sun or gain enough kinetic energy to escape entirely. This latter fate is the case for Comet Catalina, which reaches perihelion on November 15th and then heads out of the Solar System after putting on one final show for observers on Earth.

Icy Volcanoes May Erupt On Pluto ( 32

An anonymous reader writes: The New Horizons probe may have discovered two possible ice volcanoes on the surface of Pluto. "These are two really extraordinary features. Nothing like this has ever been seen in the solar system." Oliver White, a New Horizons postdoctoral researcher with NASA's Ames Research Center in California said. The mountains have been informally named Wright Mons and Picard Mons, and at their crests, each peak hosts a central crater, reminiscent of peaks called "shield volcanoes" on Earth. "Whatever they are, they're definitely weird" — 'volcanoes' is the least weird hypothesis at the moment," White says.

SETI Fails To Detect Signals Coming From KIC 8462852 ( 99

MarkWhittington writes: Rare excitement spread through the scientific community and the media when data from the Kepler Space Telescope indicated something strange going on around a star 1,500 light years away called KIC 8462852. An analysis of the pattern of light coming from the star suggested that a swarm of smaller objects was orbiting the planet. Scientists narrowed down the possible explanations for the data to either a swarm of comets or a group of alien megastructures. According to a story in Space Daily, an examination of KIC 8462852 by SETI, using the Allen Telescope Array, has failed to find any evidence that ET exists around that particular star.
United Kingdom

British Spaceplane Skylon Could Revolutionize Space Travel ( 226

MarkWhittington writes: The problem of lowering the cost of sending people and cargo into low Earth orbit has vexed engineers since the dawn of the space age. Currently, the only way to go into space is on top of multistage rockets which toss off pieces of themselves as they ascend higher into the heavens. The Conversation touted a British project, called Skylon, which many believe will help to address the problem of costly space travel. According to IEEE Spectrum, both BAE Systems and the British government have infused Skylon with $120 million in investment.

NASA's Cassini Discovers Hydrocarbon Dunes On Titan ( 77

MarkWhittington writes: NASA made an announcement that Titan, a moon of Saturn and the largest moon in the solar system, has hydrocarbon dunes. The discovery has highlighted the entirely alien nature of Titan, which has seas, lakes and rains of liquid methane and ethane and a surface comprised on water ice. The fact that it has dunes made of frozen hydrocarbon that acts like sand, blown by the wind on Earth is yet another piece of data that has scientists interested in studying Titan further.

Why Gravity Is the Ultimate Space Telescope ( 42

TheAlexKnapp writes: Ethan Siegel has written a nice overview of gravitational lensing, and how taking advantage of it has enabled to study parts of the universe that otherwise would've require the construction of massive telescopes. From his Forbes article: "Although the first gravitational lens wasn't discovered for some 40 years after it was first theorized, it's now the most prolific tool for weighing distant (foreground) galaxies, and discovering ultra-distant (background) galaxies. Although this isn't a technique we have precision control over — the Universe puts the lenses and the lensed objects where they are, and all we can do is watch — there's a spectacular amount of material that's out there."

The International Space Station Turns 15 ( 69

An anonymous reader writes: Today marks the 15th birthday of the International Space Station (ISS). Since Nov. 2, 2000 the ISS has hosted more than 220 people from more than a dozen countries. Time reports: "The ISS was little more than three pressurized modules, some supplies and a couple of solar wings to help keep it powered on the day the first crew climbed aboard. Today, the station is a flying piece of cosmic infrastructure the size of a football field, containing 15 pressurized modules, which afford the astronauts as much habitable space as a six-bedroom home. It weighs 1 million pounds (454,000 kg), runs on 3.3 million lines of software code and required 115 launches just to carry all of its components up to orbit."

NASA's Bolden Claims NASA Is 'Doomed' Unless It Stays the Course To Mars ( 162

MarkWhittington writes: According to a story in Space News, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden made a speech at the Center for American Progress in which he declared that if the next president deviated from the Journey to Mars program, the space agency would be "doomed." The point he was making, that programs of that nature, have to have consistent support over several presidencies and congresses, was a valid one. The point was equally valid in 2010 when President Obama abruptly and without warning canceled the Constellation space exploration program. Bolden, however, had a ready answer for that, which may not be convincing on close examination.

Only 8% of the Universe's Habitable Worlds Have Formed So Far ( 140

sciencehabit writes: According to a new study, 92% of Earth-like planets haven't been born yet. Science reports: "Using data from the Hubble Space Telescope, researchers estimated the rates of past star and planet formation in the universe, which is now about 13.8 billion years old. They then combined that information with data from previous surveys that estimated the amounts of hydrogen and helium left over from the big bang that still haven't collapsed to form stars. At the time our solar system formed about 4.6 billion years ago, only about 39% of the hydrogen and helium in our galaxy had collapsed into clouds that then evolved into stars, they say. That means that the remaining 61% is available to form future solar systems that may include Earth-like planets in their habitable zones, the researchers report online today in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. In the universe as a whole, the researchers suggest, only 8% of its original starmaking gases was locked up in stars by Earth's first birthday. The rest will, over the remaining trillions of years of the universe's lifetime, coalesce into stars whose solar systems will contain a myriad of Earth-like planets."

Study Questions Scientific Dating Method Used For Lunar Impacts ( 49

schwit1 writes: A new study has raised questions about the methods scientists have used to date the late heavy bombardment in the early solar system. According to the University of Wisconsin-Madison: "A study of zircons from a gigantic meteorite impact in South Africa, now online in the journal Geology, casts doubt on the methods used to date lunar impacts. The critical problem, says lead author Aaron Cavosie, a visiting professor of geoscience and member of the NASA Astrobiology Institute at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is the fact that lunar zircons are ex situ, meaning removed from the rock in which they formed, which deprives geoscientists of corroborating evidence of impact. 'While zircon is one of the best isotopic clocks for dating many geological processes,' Cavosie says, 'our results show that it is very challenging to use ex situ zircon to date a large impact of known age.'" The problem is that the removal of the zircon from lunar rocks changes the data enough to make the dating unreliable. The method might work on Earth, but the dating done on Apollo samples can be questioned. This means that much of the supposed history of the solar system, centered on what planetary scientists call the late heavy bombardment, a period 4 billion years ago when the planets were being hit by innumerable impacts as they cleared the solar system of its dusty debris disk, might not have happened as dated from lunar samples. If so, our understanding of when that bombardment ended and life began to form on Earth might be considerably incorrect.

How Some Creative Hacking Kept Skylab From Becoming Space Junk ( 69

szczys writes: Skylab was close to becoming space junk. You may remember it crashing back to earth as space junk but that was after it was used for several research missions. What you probably don't know is that the original concept was to build it from a spent upper rocket stage that is normally just junked after launch. The module that was sent up in place of a 3rd rocket stage was damaged during launch, making it unusable until some very creative repairs paved the way for manned missions. The damage included problems with thermal shielding that turned it into an oven — nearly cooking all materials and supplies inside — and damage to solar panels which put a big hit on the station's power budget. Creative solutions and astronaut tenacity when docking and performing EVAs are all that saved Skylab from being scrapped without ever being used.

The United States and Israel Sign Space Cooperation Agreement ( 145

MarkWhittington writes: According to a story in Arutz Sheva, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden and Israel Space Agency Director General Menachem Kidron signed an agreement to further future space cooperation between the two countries. The agreement took place at the International Astronautical Conference taking place in Jerusalem. The agreement restores a previous commitment for space cooperation between the two countries that lapsed in 2005. The current agreement will have a far greater scope than the previous one.

Neckties strangle clear thinking. -- Lin Yutang