The Trump Administration is Interested in Extracting Resources From The Moon

Supporting NASA

President Donald Trump’s proposed 2018 federal budget leaves most of NASA‘s funding intact, with the total budget coming in at $19.1 billion (slightly less than the $19.3 billion approved for 2017). Thanks to Motherboard’s acquisition of communication between the Trump Administration and NASA, we may have a little more insight as to why the administration views NASA as a good investment.

Most Awaited Space Science Missions of 2017
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According to documents, the Trump team asked for data and examples of NASA’s “technology development” with the commercial industry and information on whether government-funded developments are disseminated through contracts/partnerships.

In short, they wanted to know how NASA helped fund and fuel private industries and how they contribute to money-making enterprises—case in point, the administration asked about NASA’s plan to survey the Moon in order to locate potential raw materials and determine how they can best be extracted for mining purposes.

In response, NASA assured the administration that it continuously searches for appropriate public-private partnerships, expecting the technology that it develops to grow private commercial pursuits such as work in low-Earth orbit. Specifically, they say they are “working with industry to develop innovative cislunar [a region that is equidistant between Earth and the Moon] habitation concepts that leverage existing commercialization plans.”

A New Era In Space Exploration

The commercialization of low-Earth orbit could mean a treasure trove of resources totaling up to potentially trillions of dollars. Rare and valuable resources, such as platinum-group metals, can be mined from nearby asteroids or the Moon over a sustainable period of time. That is, only if NASA has the chance to survey the Moon’s “Polar volatiles,” or regions that include minable water, hydrogen, and methane — substances that can supply long-term human missions in the future.

This apparent focus from the administration is notable, as  Lunar and asteroid mining has received increased interest from the private sector over recent years, with companies such as Planetary Resources and NexGen Space (the president of which, Charles Miller, is part of Trump’s team) advocating for the feasibility and profitability of such endeavors. While NASA isn’t new to bolstering commercialized efforts in space, the space agency has subtly pointed out in Motherboard’s 100 paged FOIA request that its mission isn’t primarily commercial, but scientific.

“NASA envisions a future in which low Earth orbit is largely the domain of commercial activity while NASA leads its international and commercial partners in the human exploration of deep space,” they wrote.

To this end, the benefits of more private operations in space include greater transparency of costs, low-cost execution of launches and exploration, greater access to different vantage points in low-Earth orbit, quick production, international collaboration, and an overall facilitation of NASA’s over-arching goal of achieving human deep-space exploration.

While NASA is in it for the science, the administration might have other ideas. But will a stronger emphasis on profitability stifle innovation — or help it grow? We may get a clearer answer once the national budget is finalized and implemented.

The post The Trump Administration is Interested in Extracting Resources From The Moon appeared first on Futurism.

Bridenstine still “in the mix” to be the next NASA administrator

U.S. Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.), after testifying before the House Armed Services Committee during posture hearings at the Rayburn House Office Building in Washington D.C., Feb. 26, 2014. U.S. DoD/Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Daniel Hinton

Rep. Jim Bridenstine says he’s still “in the mix” to be the next NASA administrator.

The Oklahoma Republican told a Tulsa TV station that he was recently interviewed again by the White House for the job, but doesn’t know when the administration will make a decision on the position.

“I don’t know what the end result is, but I keep interviewing, which is an indicator that maybe I’m still in the mix for it,” he said. [KOTV Tulsa]

More News

An Atlas 5 is set to roll out to the pad today for a Tuesday launch of a cargo spacecraft to the International Space Station. Managers gave their approval Sunday to proceed with preparations for the launch of the Cygnus cargo spacecraft Tuesday at 11:11 a.m. Eastern on a mission designated OA-7. The Orbital ATK cargo spacecraft, is carrying more than 3,400 kilograms of supplies, experiments and other hardware for the ISS. [Florida Today]

President Trump has nominated two former congressman to fill vacancies on the board of the Ex-Im Bank. The White House announced late Friday that the president nominated former Reps. Scott Garrett (R-N.J.) and Spencer T. Bachus III (R-Ala.) to fill two of the three vacancies on the board, with Garrett serving as president. Garrett, while in Congress, was a staunch opponent of the bank, dubbing its lending practices “crony capitalism,” while Bachus was a supporter of the bank. Ex-Im currently lacks a quorum on its five-member board, which prevents it from approving large deals, such as financing for commercial satellites and launches. [SpaceNews]

A letter signed by 20 members of Congress asks the Pentagon not to change its current plans to support development of new launch systems. The letter, sent to Secretary of Defense James Mattis last week, called on him to maintain the current program that is supporting development of complete launch systems, rather than focus on components such as engines. The bipartisan letter’s signatories include Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee. The letter comes after some leading members of the committee suggested that the Air Force should have a say in what engine United Launch Alliance chooses for its Vulcan vehicle, views that they have since backed away from. [SpaceNews]

A leading Air Force official says the service needs more people working in space intelligence roles. At a breakfast Friday, Lt. Gen. David Buck, commander of the 14th Air Force and leader of the Joint Functional Component Command for Space under U.S. Strategic Command, says space units in the Air Force have far fewer intelligence specialists than those under the Air Combat Command. Buck said discussions are already underway within the Air Force about getting more intelligence personnel into space units. [SpaceNews]

The general in command of Cape Canaveral Air Force Station says he’s been asked to stay on the job an extra year. Air Force Brig. Gen. Wayne Monteith was expected to complete a two-year tour of duty this summer as commander of the 45th Space Wing. However, he said he’s been asked by Gen. Jay Raymond, the head of Air Force Space Command, to remain as commander for an additional year. Monteith said he will use the additional time to continue initiatives to streamline operations, including the ability to support two launches within one day. [Florida Today]

Raytheon says its ground control system for GPS is back on track after serious cost and schedule problems. A company executive in charge of the OCX program said the program has hit every milestone since implementing a series of “corrective actions” after those problems, which attracted attention, and criticism, from both Air Force leadership and members of Congress. The Defense Department declared a Nunn-McCurdy breach for OCX last June, putting it at risk of cancellation, but approved plans in October to correct its problems. [SpaceNews]

United Launch Alliance is planning to lay off 48 workers at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. A Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification, or WARN, report released by a state agency last week said the layoffs would take effect June 1. The layoffs are part of a broader effort by ULA to reduce jobs, primarily through voluntary departures. [Lompoc (Calif.) Record]

Britain’s role in several major space projects will be part of the negotiations about the country’s departure from the European Union. Elżbieta Bieńkowska, the senior space official for the European Commission, said earlier this month that the commission will seek to keep the majority of the work on the Galileo and Copernicus satellite programs within member nations, which could affect British companies currently involved in those programs. The U.K.’s decision to leave the E.U., known as Brexit, does not affect its work on European Space Agency programs, as Britain remains a member of ESA. [Spaceflight Now]

Trump administration’s NASA transition team shows interest in lunar resources

Astronaut Harrison Schmitt collects lunar rake samples during the Apollo 17 mission. Credit: NASA

The Trump administration’s NASA transition team showed an interest in lunar resources.

Documents exchanged between NASA and the Trump transition’s agency review team, obtained under a Freedom of Information Act inquiry, showed that the transition team was interested in NASA’s plans to survey the moon for resources, and about its technology transfer and commercialization activities.

The White House declined to comment on any interest the administration has in mining the moon. [Motherboard]

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NASA’s inspector general believes it’s likely there will be additional delays in the first two SLS/Orion missions. In a report released Thursday, NASA’s Office of Inspector General concluded that a number of technical issues, and a lack of schedule reserve, will result in delays for the first SLS/Orion mission, EM-1 in November 2018, as well as EM-2 planned for August 2021. That assessment doesn’t factor in potential additional delays from tornado damage to the Michoud Assembly Facility or the possibility of putting a crew on EM-1, which would push back that mission to at least mid-2019. The report also recommended NASA do more to detail its long-term exploration plans and how they can fit into its projected budgets. [SpaceNews]

Scientists have detected more evidence that two moons in the outer solar system could be habitable. At a NASA press conference Thursday, scientist said they detected hydrogen in plumes emanating from Enceladus, an icy moon of Saturn thought to have a subsurface ocean. That hydrogen, scientists said, could provide a chemical energy source for any life there. A separate study found new evidence that Jupiter’s moon Europa also has plumes. Hubble observations detected signs of plumes, which may only be intermittent. [Science]

Those discoveries bolster the case for sending new missions to those “ocean worlds.” NASA is currently developing the Europa Clipper mission for launch as soon as 2022. That spacecraft will be equipped with instruments to better determine the habitability of Europa, including studying the composition of its plumes. There are no missions on the books for Enceladus or other moons of Saturn, but Enceladus is one possible destination for the ongoing competition for the next New Frontiers medium-class planetary science mission. NASA, at the direction of Congress, is developing a roadmap to guide an “Ocean Worlds Exploration Program” to determine if such worlds could host life. [SpaceNews]

An astronaut getting three extra months on the International Space Station is happy to have her mission extended. NASA announced last week that Peggy Whitson will remain on the ISS until September, rather than returning in June as originally planned. She said she’s not bored working on the station, but does lament the limited food choices available on the station. Whitson, who will break the record for most cumulative time spent in space by a NASA astronaut later this month, added she wouldn’t mind going to space again after this mission. [AP]

The Orion spacecraft that made a brief 2014 test flight is now on display at the Kennedy Space Center. The capsule, which flew on the five-hour Exploration Flight Test 1 mission in December 2014, is in the “NASA Now” exhibit at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. The EFT-1 capsule was expected to fly again on a test of the Orion abort system, but prime contractor Lockheed Martin now plans to use a boilerplate capsule instead. The capsule’s base is surrounded by a curtain to hide its missing heat shield, which was removed for analysis. [collectSPACE]

Legendary Apollo-era flight director Gene Kranz praised SpaceX for taking risks. Kranz, speaking on a panel after a screening of the new documentary Mission Control, supported SpaceX’s use of a previously flown booster to successfully launch an SES satellite last month. “Space involves risk, and I think that’s the one thing about Elon Musk and all the various space entrepreneurs: they’re willing to risk their future in order to accomplish the objective that they have decided on,” he said. [Ars Technica]

A federal court has cleared the way for a lawsuit against a NASA agent in involved in a moon rock sting. The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled unanimously Thursday that Joann Davis has the right to sue on the basis that her constitutional rights against unlawful detention had been violated by Norman Conley, a special agent and criminal investigator for NASA’s Office of Inspector General. Conley detained Davis, 75 at the time, in 2011 for two hours as part of a sting operation after she tried to sell an artifact from her late husband that she believed contained an Apollo 11 moon rock. Conley had argued that, as a federal agent, he was immune from liability. The ruling allows Davis’ suit to proceed. [Los Angeles Times]

“Ocean Worlds” discoveries build case for new missions

Cassini Enceladus

WASHINGTON — Discoveries involving two “ocean world” moons in the outer solar system announced April 13 are likely to bolster the case for planned and proposed spacecraft missions to those worlds.

At a press conference, NASA announced that its Cassini spacecraft, orbiting Saturn, had detected hydrogen gas in previously-discovered plumes emanating from the surface of the icy moon Enceladus. Scientists suspect that the moon has an ocean of liquid water beneath the surface that provides the source material for the plumes.

The hydrogen, scientists said at a briefing, is likely produced by hydrothermal activity, and could serve as an energy source for any life there. “Although we can’t detect life, we’ve found that there’s a food source there for it. It would be like a candy store for microbes,” said Hunter Waite, team lead for Cassini’s ion and neutral mass spectrometer, in a statement about the discovery.

In a separate finding presented at the same briefing, scientists using the Hubble Space Telescope detected new evidence of plumes emanating from Europa, the icy moon of Jupiter also thought to have a subsurface ocean. Such plumes had been seen in past Hubble observations of the moon, but limited data, in part because the plumes appear to be intermittent, had left some scientists skeptical about whether they exist.

The new observations give scientists greater, but not complete, confidence Europa has plumes. William Sparks, an astronomer with the Space Telescope Science Institute, said at the briefing the detection was made at the “four sigma” level of confidence, which made it unlikely, but not impossible, that the detections were simply random noise or instrumental effects.

“That’s not quite as strong evidence as you’d really like,” he acknowledged. “I wouldn’t say it’s completely unequivocal the way it is with Enceladus. We’re still at the limits of what Hubble can do. But we’re growing in confidence.”

Follow-up observations will require new missions. NASA is already developing a mission to Europa, called Europa Clipper, that will go into orbit around Jupiter and make dozens of close flybys of the moon to better determine how habitable it is.

Among the suite of instruments on Europa Clipper is an ultraviolet spectrometer. “This imager is going to be the plume finder,” said Jim Green, director of NASA’s planetary science division.

He added that, hopefully, the spacecraft will be able to fly through a plume, much as Cassini did at Enceladus. “Now we’ll have the right set of observations to make,” he said. That includes an advanced mass spectrometer that will be able to measure the composition of the plume.

Europa Clipper is being developed for launch as soon as 2022, and could arrive at Jupiter in late 2024, depending on the choice of launch vehicle. However, scientists acknowledge that it’s unlikely that the spacecraft will alone be able to determine if there is life in Europa’s oceans. A follow-on lander mission is in the early stages of development, although the Trump administration’s fiscal year 2018 budget blueprint, released March 16, included no funding for a lander despite supporting Europa Clipper and other planetary programs in that budget proposal.

The prospects for missions to Enceladus are less clear. Cassini is nearing the end of its mission, as NASA plans a final series of close-in investigations of Saturn and its rings prior to flying the spacecraft into Saturn itself in mid-September. With Cassini running low on fuel for its thrusters, that maneuver is intended to prevent the spacecraft from possibly crashing into, and contaminating, the potentially habitable moons of Enceladus and Titan.

Cassini also lacks the instrumentation to better understand if Enceladus is inhabited. “Cassini can look for habitability, but we don’t have the instruments to look for life,” said Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist, at the briefing. “We’ve come as far as we can go, so it remains for a future mission to detect life at Enceladus.”

NASA currently has no mission to Enceladus, or Saturn in general, on the books. However, so-called “ocean worlds,” which include Enceladus and Titan, are one of the proposed destinations for the next mission in the New Frontiers program of medium-class planetary missions. NASA issued an announcement of opportunity for that next mission late last year, with proposals due to NASA April 28. The agency expects to select several proposals in November for additional study, with a final selection in mid-2019.

Congress, in its fiscal year 2016 appropriations bill, directed NASA to develop an “Ocean Worlds Exploration Program” to search for life on such worlds using a mix of small and large missions. That language was included by Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas), chairman of the appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA and a strong advocate for missions to Europa in particular.

A formal program is still being established within the agency, officials said at the briefing. Mary Voytek, astrobiology senior scientist at NASA Headquarters, said a “roadmap” document outlining studies of ocean worlds is in the final stages of development by an advisory group. “They’re about to deliver that to us any day now,” she said. That document, she said, will set science priorities and technology requirements for any future missions.

Some scientists have questioned whether Enceladus, with its constant plumes containing chemical energy that could support life, may be a better initial target than Europa. Voytek noted that the presence of hydrogen in the plume indicates that it is not being consumed by any life that might exist in the oceans in Enceladus. “It means that there might not be life there at all, and if there is life, it’s not very active,” she said.

She speculated that could be linked to the age of Enceladus, which may be much younger Saturn itself. Europa, by contrast, was formed at the same time as Jupiter, more than four billion years ago. “That’s a lot more time for life to have emerged and start taking advantage of these energy sources,” she said. “So my money, for the moment, is still on Europa.”

NASA inspector general foresees additional SLS/Orion delays

NASA artist's concept of SLS.

WASHINGTON — A report from NASA’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) April 13 concluded that the first two missions of the Space Launch System rocket and Orion spacecraft will likely slip from their currently scheduled dates.

The report on NASA’s human exploration programs, the outcome of a nine-month audit by OIG, also recommended that NASA provide more details about its long-term plans to send humans to Mars, citing constrained budgets and the need to develop a number of key technologies to enable such missions.

NASA’s current schedule calls for the launch of the first SLS/Orion mission, Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1), no later than November 2018 without a crew. That would be followed by EM-2, the first SLS/Orion mission to carry astronauts, as soon as August 2021.

The OIG report, though, was skeptical NASA could maintain that schedule. “NASA’s first exploration missions – EM-1 and EM-2 – face multiple technical challenges that will likely delay their launch,” the report stated.

The report outlines a number of technical challenges that SLS, Orion and associated ground systems are facing that makes it unlikely NASA can maintain its current schedule for those missions. Work on SLS, it said, has consumed nearly all of the 11 months of schedule reserve it originally had. “With only 30 days of schedule reserves available, the SLS Program may be hard pressed to meet a November 2018 launch date,” OIG concluded.

Orion also faces issues. “NASA considers Orion to be one of the biggest challenges to meeting the EM-1 flight date of no later than November 2018,” the report stated. Delays in the development of the Orion service module, provided by the European Space Agency are the leading factor in the overall Orion delay, as well as technical risks involved with changes in the design of Orion’s heat shield.

In addition to SLS and Orion issues, the OIG report stated that work on ground systems at the Kennedy Space Center has only one month of schedule reserve remaining. Development of software needed for SLS, Orion and ground systems have also suffered delays that could delay the first SLS/Orion launch. “We are concerned NASA will not be able to resolve all necessary [exploration systems] software validation and verification efforts in time to meet a November 2018 launch date for EM-1,” OIG said in the report.

Recent events could exacerbate those delays. The report briefly mentions damage from a Feb. 7 tornado that hit the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans. It estimated repairs to Michoud buildings could result in a two-month delay in work on the SLS, whose core stage is built there.

NASA officials have provided similar estimates on the potential delays caused by the tornado. “The tornado probably cost us two to three months,” said Bill Hill, deputy associate administrator for exploration systems development, in a March 29 presentation to the NASA Advisory Council’s Human Exploration and Operations Committee. “We’re still evaluating that and seeing what the options are.”

Another wild card that could delay EM-1 is a decision to put a crew on that first flight. NASA is currently examining such a move, which would delay the mission regardless of other technical issues. The target date for a crewed EM-1 mission is mid-2019, according to ground rules for that study cited in the OIG report.

The report said that, as of early April, the study about putting a crew on EM-1 was still in progress. “To achieve a crewed EM-1 flight, in our judgment NASA must address not only the additional risks associated with human travel but also a host of existing risks to planned missions,” OIG said in the report, citing work needed on Orion’s life support systems and a decision to either human-rate the Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage that will be used on EM-1 or accelerate work on the Exploration Upper Stage.

Beyond EM-1 and EM-2, OIG called on the agency to provide more details on future missions and technology requirements needed to enable the long-term goal of human missions to the surface of Mars. Only recently has NASA started to flesh out a manifest of future SLS/Orion missions, primarily for flights through the 2020s to develop a cislunar “gateway” station in preparations for Mars missions.

“While we agree that finalizing requirements for the Journey to Mars through 2046 is impractical at this point in time, we believe that adding more detail to the plan would help NASA focus funding priorities for the systems the Agency will need to develop to accomplish its goals,” the report stated.

That planning is needed soon because of concerns of a potential shortfall in funding. A comparison of projected budgets for NASA’s exploration programs, assuming they grow at only the rate of inflation, compared to the cost estimate from a Jet Propulsion Laboratory study of one proposed Mars mission architecture, found a gap of $18 billion from 2018 through 2026.

Another factor in that planning is a potential extension of the International Space Station beyond 2024, which could cost NASA $3 to 4 billion a year that would otherwise go to exploration programs.

“Whether to extend the ISS beyond 2024 is a critical decision for NASA and its Journey to Mars, particularly because of the funding shortfalls projected during the 2020s and the need for development of key systems during that time period,” the report argued.

NASA Says Saturn’s Moon Has “The Ingredients Necessary For a Habitable Environment”

A New Discovery

NASA just released evidence that a liquid water ocean that could support life lies beneath the icy surface of Saturn’s moon Enceladus. The agency also reports that the world has many of the “ingredients needed for a habitable environment.”

Thanks to Cassini, organic chemicals—carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and sulfur—which are the basic building blocks of life, were seen spraying forth from the “tiger stripe” cracks on the cold surface of the moon.

Additionally, in the paper published in Science, which comes from researchers on the Cassini mission, it was revealed that hydrogen gas, which NASA notes, “could potentially provide a chemical energy source for life,” is pouring into the ocean on Enceladus via hydrothermal vents on the seafloor.

It has almost all of the ingredients you would need to support life as we know it.

In a statement, Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate at Headquarters in Washington, outlined the significance of the find: “This is the closest we’ve come, so far, to identifying a place with some of the ingredients needed for a habitable environment. These results demonstrate the interconnected nature of NASA’s science missions that are getting us closer to answering whether we are indeed alone or not.”

“Confirmation that the chemical energy for life exists within the ocean of a small moon of Saturn is an important milestone in our search for habitable worlds beyond Earth,” added Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “We now know that Enceladus has almost all of the ingredients you would need to support life as we know it on Earth,” she continued.

Water Means Life

To clarify, water, which supports and cradles life on Earth, is abundant in our solar system. As University of Michigan planetary scientist Sushil Atreya told Scientific American, water is necessary for life as-we-know-it for a number of important reasons: “Liquid water acts as a solvent, as a medium and as a catalyst for certain types of proteins, and those are three main things that allow life to flourish.”

Indeed, everywhere that we find water on Earth, we find life—and enough water appears to be on this world, and in the proper conditions, that it seems likely that we will find alien life there.

“The way the jets react so responsively to changing stresses on Enceladus suggests they have their origins in a large body of liquid water,” Christophe Sotin co-author and Cassini team member said in a NASA press release. “Liquid water was key to the development of life on Earth, so these discoveries whet the appetite to know whether life exists everywhere water is present” (pun, probably, intended).

“Although we can’t detect life, we’ve found that there’s a food source there for it. It would be like a candy store for microbes,” said Hunter Waite, lead author of the Cassini study.

The post NASA Says Saturn’s Moon Has “The Ingredients Necessary For a Habitable Environment” appeared first on Futurism.

Today, NASA Is Unveiling a Major Discovery About “The Search for Life Beyond Earth”

Uncovering Interstellar Oceans

NASA shocked the world earlier this year when they announced the discovery of the seven Earth-like exoplanets found in what is now known as the Trappist-1 system. It seems as though the space agency is bent on shocking the world again with an upcoming press conference on “ocean worlds” in our solar system.

The announcement comes in light of data collected by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft during its final mission and the Hubble Telescope and is scheduled for Thursday, April 13th at 2 PM. The conference will cover new results about “ocean worlds” in our solar system and “the search for life beyond Earth.”

NASA’s quest to find life in our solar system has rested on the possibility of interstellar water. Because a majority of our home planet is covered in water and all life (as we know it, as it adheres to known scientific principles) depends on water, it is logical to expect that wherever there is water, extraterrestrial life might not be too far away.

There are several possible “ocean worlds” currently being investigated by NASA. The moons of the gas giants Jupiter and Saturn are prime suspects for the space agency. Of Jupiter’s many moons, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto are all suspected to have oceans underneath their icy crusts, while of Saturn’s moons, it’s suspected that Enceladus, Titan, and Mimas might also hold sub-surface oceans.

It’s exciting to imagine that all this happening in our very own solar system…but what exactly would it mean if we find oceans?

Are We Alone?

Searching for hidden oceans far off in our solar system could give us some insight into the origins of life. We might be able to better understand how we came to be, and how other creatures in the cosmos might come to be. The conditions for life to arise may not be as limiting as we once thought. But, we can only find answers to these questions if we venture forth and take a thorough look at our cosmic neighborhood.

The press conference, held at the James Webb Auditorium at NASA Headquarters in Washington on April 13th, might just give us a better understanding of the possibility of “ocean worlds” and the prevalence of life beyond Earth. The briefing will feature prominent scientists such as:

  • Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator, Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington
  • Jim Green, director, Planetary Science Division at NASA Headquarters
  • Mary Voytek, astrobiology senior scientist at NASA Headquarters
  • Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California
  • Hunter Waite, Cassini Ion and Neutral Mass Spectrometer team lead at the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in San Antonio
  • Chris Glein, Cassini INMS team associate at SwRI
  • William Sparks, astronomer with the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore

After the conference, these scientists will take questions from those attending as well as from the public on social media (using #AskNASA). The live stream begins at 2 pm ET right below.

While no one expects the press conference to tell us that a secret set of seven earth-like planets with massive alien-laden oceans are hiding between Jupiter and Saturn, the press conference should give us a good idea of where we stand in our search for life in the cosmos.

The post Today, NASA Is Unveiling a Major Discovery About “The Search for Life Beyond Earth” appeared first on Futurism.

Commercial crew flight assignments could come this summer

Behnken Starliner

COLORADO SPRINGS — One of the NASA astronauts training to fly on test flights of commercial crew vehicles said he expects the agency to make flight assignments for those missions as soon as this summer.

In a discussion with reporters here April 6 outside a simulator of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner commercial crew vehicle, Robert Behnken said those upcoming crew assignments will allow astronauts who have been training on both the Starliner and SpaceX’s Dragon v2 to specialize on one vehicle.

“I think it’ll be about a year or so from flight,” he said when asked when he expected crew assignments to be made. “If the schedules hold, I think that it’s possible this summer we would see people identified for the flights.”

Both companies are currently planning to perform test flights by the middle of 2018. SpaceX’s schedule calls for a crewed flight test to the International Space Station in May 2018, six months after an uncrewed test flight of the Dragon v2. Boeing expects to do a crewed test flight to the ISS in August 2018, two months after an uncrewed Starliner flight.

A key caveat, though, is whether that schedule of test flights holds. Both companies announced late last year delays in their test flight schedules, pushing crewed test flights into the middle of 2018. That has, in turn, delayed the formal NASA certification of those vehicles, required before they can begin regular flights to the ISS known as post-certification missions (PCMs), until late 2018.

At a March 28 meeting of the NASA Advisory Council’s human exploration and operations committee in Washington, Kathy Lueders, manager of NASA’s commercial crew program, acknowledged the delays and suggested it may be difficult for either vehicle to be certified by the end of 2018.

“I think a lot of things have to go our way,” she said in response to a question from a committee member about whether the current schedules are feasible. “I think they’re pretty tough right now, but I would say not impossible.”

“I think the providers have a plan to get there, for at least their crewed demos next year,” she added. “I think it’s a little bit tougher to say for the PCMs.”

Behnken is part of a “cadre” of four veteran astronauts announced by NASA in July 2015 to train on both vehicles in preparation for test flights that are key milestones in each company’s commercial crew development contracts. In addition to Behnken, a former chief of the NASA Astronaut Office, the agency selected Eric Boe, Douglas Hurley and Sunita Williams.

At least three of the four will be assigned to fly on those test flights. SpaceX plans to use two NASA astronauts on its crewed Dragon v2 flight, while Boeing will pair one NASA astronaut with a Boeing commercial test pilot yet to be identified. Industry insiders have widely speculated that Chris Ferguson, a former NASA astronaut who is now director of Starliner crew and mission operations at Boeing, will be that test pilot.

The four astronauts in the commercial crew cadre have been training on both vehicles since the announcement, both learning how each spacecraft operates and providing feedback to the companies. They have been involved on all aspects of both vehicles, without specializing on any specific vehicle or subsystem.

That lack of specialization will carry over onto operational missions. Unlike the shuttle program, where astronauts were trained as either pilots or mission specialists, Behnken said there were no plans to create a class of pilot astronauts for Dragon or Starliner spacecraft.

“I think it’s become obsolete with the retirement of the space shuttle to some extent,” he said, citing the experience from the ISS. “It’s really made it so that you need a crewmember who can do everything, and for these capsules, both Boeing’s vehicle and SpaceX’s vehicle, the intent is to get to a place where anybody in our astronaut corps could operate the vehicles.”

Behnken said the four members of the cadre have been working together, comparing notes before making recommendations to the companies on changes they should make to their vehicles. The intent, he said, is to avoid when happened with the Gemini spacecraft design in the 1960s, when astronaut Gus Grissom played such a major role in its development that the spacecraft was nicknamed the “Gusmobile” by other astronauts.

“We wanted to be a little bit careful to build a spacecraft that was more representative of what the [astronaut] office would need versus what I need,” he said. “I didn’t want my name to be the one that was cursed for the rest of the life of CST-100 because I had agreed to something.”

Scientists worried cuts to NASA’s Earth science programs could create climate data gap

At a time when NASA earth scientists are concerned their research may be scuttled by the incoming Trump administration, the space agency’s top science official is preaching pragmatism and unity. Credit: NASA

Scientists are worried that proposed cuts to NASA’s Earth science programs could create a climate data gap.

Last month’s budget proposal included terminating four planned or operational missions designed at least in part to collect climate-related data.

Scientists were worried even before the new administration took office about the potential loss of climate data, in part because of a perceived gap in the responsibilities of NASA and NOAA to study climate and weather. [New York Times]

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Aerojet Rocketdyne will move rocket engine development work from a historic California site under a consolidation plan announced Monday. The company said that, as part of the second phase of its Competitive Improvement Program, engine work currently done at the company’s facility near Sacramento will move to Huntsville, Alabama, and Southern California. About 1,100 of 1,400 jobs currently in Sacramento will be relocated or eliminated, with the facility becoming a “Shared Services Center of Excellence” handling administrative work. The company said the overall consolidation effort will help the company save $230 million a year once completed. [SpaceNews]

Italian launch vehicle company Avio started trading on the Milan stock exchange Monday. Shares in Avio rose 11 percent in the first day of trading Monday on the Borsa Italiana before falling back. Avio listed on the exchange after a merger with investment vehicle Space2 SpA and the departure of private-equity funds. Avio, which is the prime contractor for the Vega small launch vehicle and part of the Ariane 6 program, believes being publicly listed will make it easier for the company to access capital for future programs. [Bloomberg]

The chief financial officer of Harris CapRock has joined satellite connectivity company Global Eagle. Paul Rainey because CFO of Global Eagle earlier this month, filling a position vacated in February by Tom Severson, who departed the company abruptly with CEO Dave Davis. Rainey arrives at Global Eagle as the company faces a near-term threat to its Nasdaq listing because of the delayed filing of its 2016 financial results. [SpaceNews]

Satellite antenna company Kymeta has raised more than $70 million in its latest funding round. Filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission show that the company recently raised $73.5 million, bringing the total raised to date by the company to nearly $200 million. Among those investing in Kymeta is Intelsat, which said it played a minor role in this latest round. Intelsat and Kymeta announced a partnership last month that will use the Kymeta’s flat panel antennas to support a satellite broadband service. [GeekWire]

China plans to launch an experimental communications satellite on Wednesday. The Shijian-13 satellite, scheduled to launch at 7 a.m. Eastern, is a 4.5-ton satellite that will operate at 110.5 degrees east in GEO. The spacecraft will test Ka-band satellite broadband services and the use of electric propulsion. Shijian-13 will also test space-to-ground laser communications. [gbtimes]

An asteroid mining company got the royal treatment Monday. Prince Guillaume and Princess Stephanie of Luxembourg visited Planetary Resources, the Seattle-area company with long-term aspirations to obtain resources from asteroids. The government of Luxembourg invested more than $25 million into the company last year as part of its initiative. The Luxembourg delegation, which also includes Deputy Prime Minister Etienne Schneider, is visiting other space companies in the United States this week as well. [GeekWire]

NASA will announce new discoveries about ocean worlds in the solar system this week. The agency said Monday it will hold a press conference Wednesday involving scientists using data from the Hubble Space Telescope and the Cassini spacecraft. Saturn’s moon Enceladus is thought to have an ocean of liquid water beneath its icy surface, based in part on plumes previously detected by Cassini, while Hubble observations have detected evidence for plumes emanating from Jupiter’s moon Europa, also thought to have a subsurface ocean. []

NASA Just Released Their Latest Plans to Get Humans to Mars

The Long Game

When Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla and SpaceX, revealed his plans to make humans an interplanetary species by going to Mars, the whole world took notice. But when NASA unveiled its new plans for getting to Mars, they barely registered on the global radar.

Living Off The Land: A Guide To Settling Mars [Infographic]
Click to View Full Infographic

These details on just how NASA plans to bring humans to the Red Planet came via an article published on the organization’s official website on March 28. While the agency may be treading lightly in the publicity department these days due to the political climate, it has already received a clear mandate from the government to get humans to Mars by 2033.

“There’s now a sense of urgency,” according to NASA associate administrator Bill Gerstenmaier. “The hope is we’ve created enough of a framework that folks can see that there’s a real plan worth executing. But also, it’s not so defined that it if some piece changes, the entire plan gets thrown away and we start all over again.”

A Gateway and a Transport

NASA has been busy preparing for next year’s test flight of its Space Launch System (SLS) and the Orion spacecraft. Both the SLS and the Orion are critical elements of NASA’s new plans, which still follow the basic program the agency previously outlined. During the 2020s, NASA will focus on learning how to live and work in lunar orbit. Then, by the 2030s, it will start heading to Mars.

The first phase of NASA’s plan is to build what it’s calling a deep space gateway (DSG), which would essentially be a small space station orbiting the Moon. The plan is to assemble it over the course of three SLS flights and have it completed by 2025. The DSG is meant to be staffed on a continuous basis and could sustain a crew of four, with the Orion docked, for 42 days, according to It would have a propulsion module, a habitation module, and perhaps an airlock for spacewalks.

The DSG and the DST. Image credit: NASA
The DSG (left) and the DST (right). Image credit: NASA

The DSG would serve as a space port or launch base for potential lunar landing missions, as well as for a deep space transport (DST) spacecraft. This is phase two of NASA’s plan. reports that the DST would be able to support a crew of four for as long as 1,000 days at a time. Between missions, supply and refurbishing runs would be done at the DSG.

The DST would be massive, with a predicted bare weight of about 41 metric tons. The plan is to launch it into lunar orbit in 2027 via a single SLS mission. “There’s really no [other] vehicle today, or even planned, that can launch 41 metric tons (to the Moon) in one piece,” said Gerstenmaier. “We think that that is the minimum size for this Mars-class transport.” If all goes well up to that point, NASA expects the DST to survive three trips to Mars and back.

Despite the agency’s understated approach to sharing its plans for Mars, Gerstenmaier is confident that NASA is well-equipped to pull them off. “There’s nothing this agency cannot do,” he said. “If you can give us a clear direction and give us reasonable resources, this agency and its contractor base will accomplish what you want.”

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