Mike Hettich has taken over as LeoStella’s CEO. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle) TUKWILA, Wash. — has finally completed his transition from chief learning officer to chief executive officer at , the satellite manufacturing joint venture headquartered here. Hettich came to LeoStella from Kirkland, Wash.-based , where he served as vice president for 19 years. For the past few weeks, he’s been learning the ropes at the Tukwila development and manufacturing facility from , who stepped down from the CEO post and is returning to his home base at Thales Alenia Space in France. In an interview, Hettich joked that “chief learning officer” came the closest to describing his role during the transition. Today marked Hettich’s first day as LeoStella’s CEO. LeoStella is a 50-50 joint venture of , a French-Italian aerospace venture, and Seattle-based . The company was created as part of a involving the two companies plus Italy’s Telespazio. Its top priority is to build satellites the size of filing cabinets for , a subsidiary of Spaceflight Industries that is developing a constellation of Earth-observing satellites as well as a software platform to deliver satellite imagery and other sorts of geospatial intelligence. Two of BlackSky’s Global satellites, built before LeoStella entered the picture, have already been into . LeoStella’s team is finishing up the work on the next two satellites, and then the company will turn out 20 more satellites for the constellation. BlackSky aims to have 16 satellites in its constellation by early 2021, and eventually build up the orbiting array to a full complement of 60 satellites. The satellites are designed for a service life of 36 months, which means LeoStella will have to replenish satellites over the life cycle. Hettich said LeoStella has lined up other satellite business as well, although he declined to provide details about the customers. About 34 employees are currently working at the venture’s headquarters, located in a Tukwila office park, and a good number of them focus on spacecraft design. “A lot of the press has talked about this being a manufacturing facility,” Hettich said. “This is far beyond manufacturing. This is a turnkey facility. … We can do from design to test.” LeoStella’s facility has lots of room for expansion, in the office space as well as on the shop floor. “Obviously this is more than what is just needed for BlackSky,” Chautard said. “You see the potential to manufacture other satellites for other customers. That was really on purpose.” Chautard said the sweet spot for LeoStella’s satellite offerings will be in the range of 50 to 150 kilograms (110 to 330 pounds), and could go as heavy as 300 kilograms (660 pounds). That’s a weight range that fits between the shoebox-sized CubeSats that are popular for research purposes and the heavyweight satellites that Thales Alenia Space builds for customers ranging from the to . Read more: Because LeoStella and Thales Alenia Space serve different market niches, there’s no competition between the two ventures, Chautard said. “However, what is unique about LeoStella is that we can dig into this huge engineering force that Thales has,” he said. “And we do that. … Whenever we have a problem to solve, or some skill that is missing on our team, we can very easily pick up the phone and have someone in Thales help us.” All that collaboration makes the job easier for a chief learning officer. “I’ve transitioned a couple of times, where I’ve walked into a … more troubled area, let’s say. Chris and the team have built something where I’m actually inheriting a very solid foundation. It’s not a turnaround. Everything’s in place. There is a transition, and there is a bit of ‘drinking from the firehose’ as far as just learning, but this is set up well. The team is highly skilled,” Hettich said. “This is actually a pretty smooth transition, and I have to thank Chris for that. “I wouldn’t have left without leaving you a good foundation,” Chautard told Hettich, with a smile on his face.
SpaceX’s Falcon 9 stands on Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center with the Crew Dragon spaceship on top. (SpaceX Photo) After years of on-the-ground development and testing, the SpaceX spaceship that’s destined to carry NASA astronauts is going on its first uncrewed test mission to the International Space Station tonight — and you can watch the historic liftoff from multiple angles. When SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule lifts off from historic Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, atop a Falcon 9 rocket, there won’t be any humans aboard. But there will be a crew member of sorts. SpaceX has placed a spacesuit-wearing, sensor-laden mannequin in one of the Dragon’s seats, to gather data about how rigorous the ride will be for actual astronauts later this year. Hans Koenigsmann, SpaceX’s vice president of build and flight reliability, shied away from calling the test device a dummy. “We call it a ‘smartie,’ and her name is Ripley,” Koenigsmann told reporters at a pre-launch briefing. The name pays tribute to the spaceflying character played by Sigourney Weaver in the “Alien” series of sci-fi movies. It also brings a bit of anthropomorphic gender balance to SpaceX’s test mannequins: For last year’s maiden launch of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, the test payload included a Tesla Roadster with a dummy nicknamed “Starman” in the driver’s seat. Ripley’s ride is due to begin at 2:49 a.m. ET Saturday (11:49 p.m. PT Friday). Streaming-video coverage of the countdown and launch will begin on NASA TV at 2 a.m. ET (11 p.m. PT), and via SpaceX’s YouTube channel sometime afterward: Because the Dragon is being launched to the space station, there’s no room for delay: If liftoff doesn’t occur right on time, due to weather or a technical glitch, the launch will have to be reset for a backup opportunity on the night of March 4-5. After sending the Dragon on its way to orbit, the Falcon 9’s first-stage booster will attempt to fly itself down to an at-sea landing on a drone ship stationed hundreds of miles out in the Atlantic Ocean. This mission is designed to test all the systems in advance of crewed missions later this year. Kathy Lueders, program manager for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, said it’s critical to wring out as much of the risk posed by a brand-new vehicle as possible before people climb on board. “This is an invaluable exercise for us, to learn in the space environment how these systems will be working, and then making sure that these systems are ready to go for when we’re going to put our crews on them,” she said. In addition to Ripley, the craft will be carrying 400 pounds of supplies and equipment for the station. The robotically controlled rendezvous is scheduled to take place early Sunday morning. Over the past few weeks, Russian space officials have voiced concerns about whether there was adequate backup computer capacity on the Dragon for the crucial hookup. To address those concerns, NASA and Roscosmos worked out a plan to have the station’s three crew members ready to take shelter in a docket Soyuz spacecraft in case the rendezvous goes horribly awry. A spacesuit-wearing, instrument-laden mannequin nicknamed “Ripley” sits inside SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spaceship. (Elon Musk via Twitter) Assuming all proceeds according to plan, NASA astronaut Anne McClain and Canada’s David Saint-Jacques will open the hatch, run tests and inspect the Dragon’s interior after docking. Meanwhile, cameras attached to the station’s Canadian-built robotic arm will inspect the exterior. The Dragon is due to stay docked to the station for five days, and then unhook itself and descend to an Atlantic Ocean splashdown on March 8. “Obviously It’s something that we have to practice in preparation for actual crew flight, to make sure that we are fast on the right spot, that we have all the potential medical attention at the right time,” Koenigsmann said. NASA back in 2014 to develop commercial space taxis for transporting astronauts to and from the space station, in order to fill the gap left behind by the space shuttle fleet’s retirement in 2011. In the interim, NASA has been paying the Russians as much as $80 million per seat for rides back and forth on Soyuz spacecraft. Boeing is expected to send its Starliner space capsule on an uncrewed flight to the space station for the first time sometime this spring. The current schedule calls for SpaceX’s first crewed launch of the Crew Dragon to occur in July, and for Boeing’s first crewed Starliner launch to take place no earlier than August. The crews for those missions have already been chosen. NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley will ride the Dragon, while the Starliner will carry NASA’s Nicole Mann and Mike Fincke as well as Boeing test pilot Chris Ferguson (a former NASA space shuttle commander). However, there’s a good chance that the stated flight schedule will slip. For example, NASA wants to make sure SpaceX has fully addressed concerns about the Falcon 9’s composite-wrapped helium tanks, which were redesigned after a launch-pad explosion in 2016. There may also need to be some design tweaks made in the Dragon’s thruster system. Additional “unknown unknowns” may well come to light during the uncrewed test flights, or during launch abort tests that SpaceX and Boeing are due to execute in the months ahead. Because of those uncertainties, NASA has been talking with the Russians about buying additional Soyuz seats just to make sure U.S. astronauts have continued access to the space station if further delays arise.
An artist’s conception shows World View’s Stratollite platform in action. (World View Illustration) For three and a half years, served as president and CEO of — the Boeing subsidiary headquartered in Bingen, Wash., that pioneered the creation of unmanned aircraft systems for military and commercial applications. Now Hartman will raise his sights as the new CEO of Tucson, Ariz.-based , which is developing stratospheric balloon-borne platforms known as Stratollites to perform satellite-style tasks in remote sensing and communications. World View said today that its board of directors appointed Hartman to the leadership position, effective immediately. Hartman, who has more than 20 years of experience in uncrewed flight systems and aerial remote sensing, will lead the company’s transition from technology development to scaled-up operations and product development. Tom Ingersoll, the board’s executive chairman, said he and his fellow board members were “thrilled to welcome Mr. Hartman to the team.” World View CEO Ryan Hartman. (Insitu Photo) “As World View prepares for scale and growth, we believe Ryan brings the perfect mix of vision, strategy and execution for the next chapter of our company’s history,” Ingersoll said in a news release. Jane Poynter, World View’s co-founder, is stepping down from the CEO role but will remain with the company as a strategic adviser and board member. “We’ve made amazing progress and have built a strong foundation for the company to thrive under Mr. Hartman’s leadership,” Poynter said. “I couldn’t be happier with his appointment, and the board and I are confident that, as a seasoned leader with unrivaled aerial systems expertise, he is the right person to build on our momentum and carry the vision forward.” Hartman thanked Poynter for her leadership and said he was “fortunate to have inherited a very healthy business.” “The Stratollite is poised to unlock previously inconceivable remote sensing and communications applications for our customers, and I’m excited to help deliver on that vision moving forward,” he said. Hartman’s tenure at Insitu began in 2010, and he took on the roles of president and CEO in 2014. to become CEO of Hood Technology in Hood River, Ore. Before his time at Insitu, Hartman led Raytheon’s Unmanned Systems Directorate of the Advanced Programs Division. He’s a veteran of the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Navy, and a graduate of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. Founded in 2013, World View started out with a but three years ago. The company already has flown a limited series of missions from its facility at — including for a KFC marketing campaign in 2017.
A collaboration between this Florida middle school robotics team and the University of Washington is potentially “life changing,” according to a science teacher at the school. (Pahokee Middle School Photo) Eight students from a low-income sugarcane town in South Florida spent months on a robotics project tackling kidney stones in space. Across the country, researchers at the University of Washington , embarking on clinical trials that, so far, are proving successful. The disparate groups converged this month when the students reached out to UW physicist and research professor as part of the competition’s requirement to seek expert input. Crum responded with a comprehensive letter back to the students that expressed his admiration for their ideas. Amid the various student projects he’s seen in his career, Crum told GeekWire that “these kids from a school in Florida are close to the best I’ve seen.” The students from will put their knowledge to the test this weekend at a regional robotics competition in Palm Beach County, with the goal of making it to the national level for the second year in a row. For the students, many who have parents working in sugarcane fields, the dialogue with UW experts is potentially life changing, said robotics team co-coach Brad Sokol, a retired entrepreneur who is now a science teacher at Pahokee Middle School. “When you come from a community like this, where every day is survival, this is so incredible,” Sokol said. The unusual collaboration has even captured the attention of NASA. “This research can help to answer fundamental questions about how NASA manages kidney stones in space,” said element scientist . Pahokee’s path The students from Pahokee Middle School will put their knowledge to the test this weekend at a regional robotics competition in Palm Beach County. (Pahokee Middle School Photo) Pahokee, with a population of about 6,200, has a median household income of about $27,000, according to census figures. At the middle school, almost all students qualify for free and reduced lunch. Test scores fall below the state averages. The robotics members are all students of color: black or Hispanic, and six of the eight students are female. Before the success of the robotics team, there was a perception that the only way out of this town was though sports, said Sonia Soto, the school magnet coordinator. “Through robotics, we’ve demonstrated there are other things,” she said. “They can strive for whatever they want — there are plenty of careers and this is one of the ways out.” This year’s asked students to identify and solve a problem faced by humans during long space explorations. In late August, the kids set to work researching the issue, coming up with the idea of solving astronauts’ kidney stones, a condition they’re more likely to encounter in space. The students brainstormed possibilities for addressing the issue, and considered making a Lego water gun and using that on the stone. They discussed attaching the water gun to a bag and recirculating the water to create a recyclable device useful in the space setting. Eventually, they decided to shoot water at an astronaut’s body using a propeller corkscrew motion to dislodge it. Cross country collaboration The Florida team had reached out to UW experts in the hopes of a few minutes of their time, said Sokol. When they received Crum’s letter, “we were beyond floored,” he said. In the letter, which he shared with GeekWire, Crum wrote: “Allow me to congratulate you and your team for a remarkably detailed and technically sophisticated examination of the problems faced by astronauts and your imaginative and original approach to their solutions.” But the dialogue didn’t stop there. Michael Bailey, an associate professor in the UW’s Applied Physics Laboratory, also offered comprehensive thoughts, questions and praise for the students’ idea. He emailed the team a list of questions to hone their approach, such as how to adjust for organs shifting in space, and people growing taller without gravity. Bailey told them the propeller corkscrew approach was not only great, but also way ahead of its time. “It took us ten years to start thinking about something like that,” he wrote. The idea of twisting a kidney stone off its attached tissue is a concept both groups share, though the UW group uses ultrasound, not water. To dislodge kidney stones, UW experts are working with a sector array, or a handheld ultrasound that looks like the face of a flower. Using ultrasound, they fire one petal and then the next one, working around clockwise. Ultimately, this creates a tube of pressure and the stone can twist off. “However, the kids’ idea of a mechanical rotating source would also work and may be much simpler and more elegant,” Bailey said. Hopes for success The inquiry from Pahokee came at a seminal time for the UW team, which has received NASA funding to work on kidney stones. They’re currently recruiting patients from UW and Harborview Medical Center’s emergency department, using an ultrasound probe placed against the skin to move the stones. Earlier this month, the team also received FDA approval to add pulses to try and break the stones, instead of just pushing them, Bailey said. “The kids’ timing is really pretty neat – we are just starting these clinical trials,” he said. The researchers are seeing success in early patients with the hope of working on 20 people altogether, Bailey said. Back in Pahokee, Sokol aspires to get more of the school involved in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), something he says could “change the dynamics of the school from a sharecropper existence to something far beyond what they could ever imagine.” He attributes the team’s ingenuity to the fact that kids have no fear when it comes to brainstorming new ideas. The work on the robotics team “takes away the limitation of years of science and textbooks and lets their minds be free,” he said. “These kids are going to be something in their lives.”
An architectural rendering shows Firefly Aerospace’s future rocket production facility at Exploration Park on Florida’s Space Coast. (Firefly Aerospace Illustration) , a Texas-based launch venture that was lifted out of bankruptcy, says it’s struck a deal with to establish business operations at Cape Canaveral Spaceport. The terms of the newly executed agreement call for Firefly to build a 150,000-square-foot rocket manufacturing facility at Space Florida’s Exploration Park and set up a launch facility at Cape Canaveral’s Space Launch Complex 20. Firefly says it will invest $52 million in the project and bring more than 200 jobs to Florida. Space Florida has agreed to match up to $18.9 million of Firefly’s infrastructure investments via the Florida Department of Transportation Spaceport Improvement Program. Other ventures with facilities at Exploration Park include and Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos’ . “Firefly Aerospace is proud to be the newest member of the Florida Space Coast family,” Firefly CEO Tom Markusic . “Our mass-production manufacturing facility in Exploration Park will enable Firefly to produce 24 Alpha vehicles a year, enabling a launch cadence that will support a rapidly expanding global small-satellite revolution and the commercialization of cislunar space.” The venture was founded as Firefly Space Systems in 2014 and conducted its first hot-fire rocket engine test the following year. But when a European investor withdrew support in 2016, in the aftermath of Britain’s Brexit vote to withdraw from the European Union, that sent the venture down the path to bankruptcy. The company was reborn as Firefly Aerospace with backing from Noosphere Venture Partners, an investment firm that bought up Firefly’s assets. Pre-launch testing and fabrication have resumed, and Firefly is aiming to conduct its first Alpha launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California by the end of this year. Even before its first flight, the venture has secured a place among eight other launch companies on, and for satellite launch contracts. “The space industry is expected to be fastest-growing segment of the worldwide economy in the coming decades, with analysts predicting a global market of over $1 trillion a year by 2040,” Markusic said. “Firefly Aerospace is uniquely positioned to be successful in this new economy.” Firefly doesn’t have the small-launch market all to itself, however. There are plenty of firms aiming to outshine it, ranging from and to and . At last week’s Commercial Space Transportation Conference in Washington, D.C., some analysts saw clear signs of a coming shakeout on the launch startup scene. “I think it is a 100 percent bubble in the launch sector right now,” said Sunil Nagaraj, founder and managing partner at Ubiquity Ventures. If there is a shakeout coming, will Firefly rise above it, or get squashed? The multimillion-dollar deal with Space Florida suggests that, for now at least, it’s on an upward trajectory.
An artist’s conception shows a Crew Dragon docking with the International Space Station. (SpaceX / NASA Illustration) NASA of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spaceship to the International Space Station in a week, setting the stage for crewed missions later this year. There won’t be any crew aboard this first Crew Dragon, also known as the Dragon 2, but there will be an instrument-laden, spacesuit-wearing mannequin sitting in one of the seats, to provide data about the environment that astronauts will experience. “Should I say ‘dummy,’ is that the right word?” Hans Koenigsmann, SpaceX’s vice president of mission assurance, asked during a briefing for reporters at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. “ATD, ATD,” said Kathy Lueders, program manager for NASA’s commercial crew program. “We prefer to not call them dummies.” (For the record, ATD stands for or .) There’ll also be a load of cargo to be sent up to the station from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, at 2:48 a.m. ET March 2 (11:48 p.m. PT March 1). Lueders said the total mass would be “pretty close” to what the Dragon 2 will carry when astronauts climb aboard. The Crew Dragon is an upgraded version of SpaceX’s robotic cargo-carrying Dragon — which has been , a year after NASA retired its space shuttle fleet. Like Dragon 1, Dragon 2 is designed to be launched by SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket. But the upgraded Dragon has a more robust thruster system that’s meant to power the spacecraft and its crew out of harm’s way if something goes wrong during launch or ascent. It has side-mounted solar arrays and can seat up to seven spacefliers. And instead of having to be pulled in for its berthing with the space station’s robotic arm, Dragon 2 can fly directly in for its docking. NASA and SpaceX are still working to close out some remaining issues in advance of next week’s launch of Demonstration Mission 1, or DM-1. For example, Russian space officials voiced concerns about the computer system that SpaceX will use when the Dragon approaches the station for docking early on March 3. NASA officials said their Russian counterparts registered a dissenting opinion when mission managers approved the launch date at today’s Flight Readiness Review. Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA’s associate administrator for human exploration and operations, said the spaceships that dock with the station typically have a separate backup system that kicks in if the main computer system goes out of commission during approach. SpaceX, however, is using a single, fault-tolerant computer system. “We think that’s acceptable,” Gerstenmaier said. But because of the Russians’ concerns, NASA engineers will take a closer look at the potential failure modes. “I don’t think it’ll be a problem once we go through the details of why it’s safe, and we can explain to them why we’re moving forward,” he said. “I fully expect we’re going to learn something on this flight,” Gerstenmaier added. “I guarantee everything will not work exactly right, and that’s cool.” After the Dragon is docked, the station’s spacefliers will open up the hatch, move cargo backhttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2Pyd_ZfpxsA and forth and conduct a survey to assess how the spacecraft weathered its maiden voyage. Exterior surveys will be made using the station’s camera-equipped robotic arm, to check for any dings from orbital debris. The Dragon and its dummy … er, ATD … are due to leave the station on March 8 and splash down in the Atlantic Ocean, a couple of hundred miles off the Florida coast. A ship will recover the capsule and bring it back to shore for study. “When we have the crewed missions, it’ll be closer in,” Lueders said. There’s a list of issues to be resolved more fully before NASA gives the go-ahead for the crewed test flight to the station, known as Demonstration Mission 2 or DM-2. Two NASA astronauts, Robert Behnken and Doug Hurley and are undergoing training. Gerstenmaier said the open issues include: Concerns about carbon-composite oxygen tanks on the Falcon 9 rocket that were implicated in launch-pad explosion that occurred in September 2016. SpaceX says the tanks have been redesigned to solve the problem, but NASA wants to make sure they’re safe. A condition that could lead to parts of SpaceX’s Draco thrusters breaking free under low temperatures. “We’re totally avoiding that condition on this mission by controlling the operational parameters of the mission,” Lueders said. Further testing that’s required for the Crew Dragon’s parachute system. “We’re comfortable that this parachute system is perfectly good for DM-1,” Gerstenmaier said. “It could be also OK for DM-2 the way it is, but we need to get through this qualification testing and understand how much margin we have in certain areas to see if it’s the right thing to do.” Assuming that DM-1 is a success and that all the open issues are resolved, SpaceX plans an uncrewed in-flight abort test of the Crew Dragon in June, followed by DM-2 in the July time frame. Meanwhile, Boeing is on a separate track to get its Starliner space taxi ready for orbital test flights. The current schedule calls for sending an uncrewed Starliner to the station and back in April or so, followed by a pad abort test a month later. The first crewed Starliner flight is set for no earlier than August. After the first crewed test flights, NASA will once again take stock of the space taxis’ performance and get any remaining issues resolved before certifying them for operational missions. That process seems certain to slop over into 2020. To ensure continued access to the space station, even if snags develop, NASA is looking into — or if necessary. Gerstenmaier said a decision on that score would be made later this year when the test program is further advanced.
The most detailed images of a Kuiper Belt object known as 2014 MU69 or Ultima Thule — obtained just minutes before the spacecraft’s closest approach — have a resolution of about 110 feet per pixel. This processed, composite picture combines nine individual images taken with the New Horizons spacecraft’s Long Range Reconnaissance Imager. The image was taken at 12:26 a.m. ET Jan. 1, when the spacecraft was 4,109 miles from 2014 MU69 and 4.1 billion miles from Earth. (NASA / JHUAPL / SwRI / NOAO Photo) The scientists behind NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft have released the sharpest possible view of the mission’s latest target, a smooshed-in cosmic snowman known as 2014 MU69 or Ultima Thule. New Horizons captured gigabytes’ worth of imagery and data as it flew past the icy object, more than 4 billion miles from Earth in the Kuiper Belt, a ring of primordial material on the edge of our solar system. It’s taken weeks to send back detailed data for processing, but now the team says they’ve gotten the best close-up view of Ultima that they’ll ever get. The best pictures were taken from a distance of 4,109 miles, just six and a half minutes before the time of closest approach at 12:33 a.m. ET Jan. 1 (9:33 p.m. PT Dec. 31). By processing multiple images, the team was able to sharpen image resolution to about 110 feet per pixel. Principal investigator Alan Stern, a planetary scientist at the Southwest Research Institute, said the imaging campaign hit the “bull’s-eye.” “Getting these images required us to know precisely where both tiny Ultima and New Horizons were — moment by moment – as they passed one another at over 32,000 miles per hour in the dim light of the Kuiper Belt, a billion miles beyond Pluto,” Stern “This was a much tougher observation than anything we had attempted in our 2015 Pluto flyby.” The processing brings out surface details that weren’t readily apparent in earlier images. Among them are several bright, enigmatic, roughly circular patches of terrain. The picture also provides a better look at dark pits near the boundary between Ultima’s sunlit and shadowed sides. “Whether these features are craters produced by impactors, sublimation pits, collapse pits, or something entirely different, is being debated in our science team,” John Spencer, deputy project scientist from SwRI, said in the news release. Stern said some of the surface features suggest that Ultima is “unlike any object ever explored before.” Ultima is thought to represent a contact binary object consisting of material that’s been little changed since the early days of the solar system. From a head-on perspective, Ultima looks like two snowballs that have been stuck together to create a 19-mile-tall snowman (or the ). But an analysis of image data captured from the side reveals that the two lobes of the object are actually . Since the New Year’s encounter, New Horizons has traveled tens of millions of miles beyond Ultima. Mission operations manager Alice Bowman of Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory reports that the spacecraft is continuing to operate flawlessly. It’s expected to take another year and a half to send back all the data that New Horizons collected during the flyby, and by that time the mission team may well have selected another target for the probe to survey in the Kuiper Belt. At first, scientists thought the object known as 2014 MU69 or Ultima Thule consisted of two roughly spherical objects stuck together. Further analysis showed that the lobes were shaped more like a walnut and a pancake. (NASA / JHUAPL / SwRI Illustration)
The SpaceShipTwo rocket plane known as VSS Unity touches down at California’s Mojave Air and Space Port after the first subrorbital space test flight to have three people aboard. (Virgin Galactic Photo) followed up on by sending up its first non-pilot on today’s test flight. The crew member who accompanied the plane’s two pilots was Beth Moses, Virgin Galactic’s chief astronaut instructor (and wife of the company’s president, Mike Moses). Today’s test sent the SpaceShipTwo rocket plane, VSS Unity, to a height of 55.87 miles (89.9 kilometers), . The flight followed Virgin Galactic’s usual profile: Unity was slung beneath its WhiteKnightTwo carrier airplane, VMS Eve, for takeoff from California’s Mojave Air and Space Port. At an altitude of about 45,000 feet, Unity was released into the air and fired its hybrid rocket engine for a minute, screaming toward the black sky of space at a top speed of Mach 3.04. After a zero-gravity coast at the top of the ride, Unity glided back to the airport for an airplane-like landing. Eve made its own landing minutes later. It was Unity’s fifth supersonic test flight, setting the stage for what’s expected to be the start of commercial operations at Spaceport America in New Mexico later this year. Lovely footage of take-off. WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo continue to rise to release altitude. — Virgin Galactic (@virgingalactic) During previous SpaceShipTwo flights, only the two test pilots were onboard. But now that VSS Unity has demonstrated it can get past the 50-mile altitude mark safely, Virgin Galactic is turning its attention to the astronaut experience. Today Moses sat behind Virgin Galactic’s chief pilot, David Mackay, and lead trainer pilot Mike “Mooch” Masucci. “She will provide human validation for the data we collect … including aspects of the customer cabin and spaceflight environment from the perspective of people in the back,” Virgin Galactic. Unlike the pilots, Moses could unhook herself from her seat and float freely in weightlessness. Moses could arguably qualify as Virgin Galactic’s first passenger; however, the company characterized her as a crew member in its . In any case, she qualifies as the first woman to fly aboard a privately funded spaceship. Unity can accommodate as many as six passengers, but the cabin is still in the process of being outfitted. A fair amount of room on today’s flight was taken up by scientific experiments that flew under the terms of an agreement with . More than 600 customers have paid as much as $250,000 to reserve their seats for suborbital space rides. Some of them are researchers hoping to accompany their experiments during a precious few minutes of microgravity, but many of them are tourists looking forward to the thrill of acceleration, weightlessness and an astronaut’s-eye view of Earth. Some of those future fliers were in the crowd looking on at Mojave Air and Space Port. Virgin Galactic’s operations are due to shift to Spaceport America once the test program in Mojave is completed. The company’s British-born billionaire founder, Richard Branson, has said , potentially just months from now. Our Chief Astronaut Trainer, Beth Moses, experienced zero-g float time as SpaceShipTwo reached apogee today. Three new Commercial Astronauts. — Virgin Galactic (@virgingalactic) “Flying the same vehicle safely to space and back twice in a little over two months, while at the same time expanding the flight envelope, is testament to the unique capability we have built up within the Virgin Galactic and The Spaceship Company organizations,” Branson said. He said he was “immensely proud” of the crew, including Moses. “Having Beth fly in the cabin today, starting to ensure that our customer journey is as flawless as the spaceship itself, brings a huge sense of anticipation and excitement to all of us here who are looking forward to experiencing space for ourselves,” Branson said. “The next few months promise to be the most thrilling yet.” Earlier this month, the test pilots who flew on December’s 50-mile-high mission . But there could be a bit of debate over bragging rights when Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture starts flying people, potentially this year. During an onstage interview this week with Space News at a New York Wings Club luncheon, , which is currently viewed by international aerospace associations as the boundary line for outer space. “One of the issues that Virgin Galactic will have to address, eventually, is that they are not flying above the Karman Line, not yet. I think one of the things they will have to figure out how to get above the Karman Line,” Bezos told Space News. “We’ve always had as our mission that we wanted to fly above the Karman Line, because we didn’t want there to be any asterisks next to your name about whether you’re an astronaut or not,” he said. “That’s something they’re going to have to address, in my opinion.” On the other side of the debate, , and there’s a good chance that the official boundary line will be lowered from 100 kilometers to 80 kilometers … that is, 50 miles.
Artwork shows ispace’s Hakuto-R lander and rover on the lunar surface. (ispace Illustration) The Japanese moon venture known as says it has recruited new corporate partners and struck a deal to put a commercial payload on its Hakuto-R lunar lander. Ispace has arranged for, in 2020 and 2021, as secondary payloads on SpaceX rockets. Those will be rideshare missions similar to the SpaceX Falcon 9 launch that . Like SpaceIL, ispace includes veterans of a team that competed in the now-defunct . Team Hakuto took its name from the Japanese word for “white rabbit.” The R in the name of ispace’s Hakuto-R lunar project stands for “reboot.” Ispace says it’s to support the Hakuto-R campaign. The 2020 mission would put a probe in lunar orbit, and the 2021 mission would send a lander and rover spacecraft to the lunar surface. In a , ispace says Japan-based NGK Spark Plug Co. has agreed to be a corporate partner in the Hakuto-R program. Part of the partnership will involve developing a payload to test solid-state battery technology on the moon. Unlike lithium-ion batteries, solid-state batteries don’t need to be kept above freezing temperatures — which NGK and ispace say would make them more suitable for space exploration applications. NGK is working on a solid-state technology that makes use of oxide-based ceramic electrolytes rather than the liquid electrolytes in lithium-ion batteries. “We will seek the possibilities of all-solid-state batteries and contribute to space development,” said Shinichi Odo, NGK’s president and CEO. Takeshi Hakamada, ispace’s founder and CEO, welcomed the partnership. “Stable power supply will be the most critical component to enable industry to take to the moon. Ultimately, this means NGK Spark Plug’s contributions will facilitate the expansion of human presence into outer space,” Hakamada said. Among other partnerships: Mitsui Sumitomo Insurance, a subsidiary of MS&AD Insurance Group Holdings, will cooperate with ispace on the development of a lunar insurance service. “The availability of lunar exploration insurance will encourage new players to participate in the lunar industry by reducing the risk of entry,” . Japan Airlines, which previously partnered with Team Hakuto, . JAL Engineering Company will provide a facility near Narita International Airport for the assembly, integration and testing of Hakuto-R spacecraft, will lend technical support on tasks such as welding, and support the transportation of spacecraft to the launch site. JAL also contributed to ispace’s funding round. The Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun , following up on the role it played with Team Hakuto during the Google Lunar X Prize competition. Asahi Shimbun will continue to promote Hakuto-R and its activities via print and digital media as well as through events.
SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket launches Indonesia’s Nusantara Satu telecommunications satellite as well as the Israeli Beresheet lunar lander and an Air Force research satellite from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. (SpaceX via YouTube) A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket sent the Israeli-made Beresheet lunar lander on the first leg of its journey to the moon tonight, as a ride-along payload accompanying Indonesia’s Nusantara Satu telecommunications satellite and a U.S. Air Force experimental satellite. The mission marks a milestone for, which funded and built Beresheet (Hebrew for “In the Beginning”), and also for Seattle-based Spaceflight, which handled the pre-launch logistics for SpaceIL. If the lander successfully touches down on the lunar surface after its circuitous two-month trip, that will make Israel-based SpaceIL the first privately funded venture to put a payload on the moon. It will also make Israel the fourth nation with a spacecraft on the lunar surface — after Russia, the United States and China. Tonight’s launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida also represents and beyond. The Seattle launch services company has negotiated the launch of more than 200 satellites, but previous missions had gone no higher than low Earth orbit. “This is an important mission for Spaceflight as we expand and evolve our customer offerings,” Spaceflight CEO Curt Blake said in a . “The launches we pursue continue to get more sophisticated and demonstrate that our expertise goes beyond identifying and scheduling launches.” The launch went off without a hitch at 8:45 p.m. ET (5:45 p.m. PT) from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Minutes after liftoff, the Falcon 9’s second stage and its payloads separated from the first-stage booster as planned and proceeded toward geosynchronous transfer orbit, or GTO. Meanwhile, the first stage maneuvered itself to a landing on an oceangoing drone ship known as “Of Course I Still Love You,” positioned hundreds of miles off the Florida coast. SpaceX said the conditions ranked among the roughest ever encountered during a landing attempt. “Highest re-entry heating to date,” . This marked the third landing for the same booster, which was previously used last year to launch and Argentina’s . Hundreds of SpaceX employees followed the webcast from the company’s headquarters in Hawthorne, Calif., cheering each success along the way. In Israel, watching the webcast at Israel Aerospace Industries. SpaceIL’s lunar initiative is “a big step for Israel, and a big step for Israel’s technology.” SpaceIL’s 1,322-pound Beresheet spacecraft was the first to be dropped off in high orbit, at an altitude of 37,000 miles. Over the weeks ahead, the dishwasher-sized lander will fire its own rocket engine to extend its orbit and enter the moon’s gravitational sphere of influence. In April, Beresheet will touch down in a relatively flat area of the lunar surface, in Mare Serenitatis, to conduct its science mission. It’s carrying a , a and a CD-sized “time capsule” that contains digitized files of children’s drawings, photographs and information about Israeli culture. SpaceIL is a nonprofit organization that was set up to pursue the. It’s working on the Beresheet mission in collaboration with state-owned Israel Aerospace Industries, but the nearly $100 million in funding for the mission has come from Israeli billionaire Morris Kahn, Las Vegas billionaire Sheldon Adelson and other philanthropists. The other two payloads will settle into stable geosynchronous Earth orbit, or GEO, 22,000 miles above our planet. Nusantara Satu, also known as PSN-6, was built by Maxar Technologies’ SSL subsidiary for Pasifik Satelit Nusantara, a leading Asian provider of satellite-based telecommunication services. Indonesia’s first high-throughput satellite is expected to boost voice, data and video links throughout the Indonesian archipelago and PSN’s Asia-Pacific service area. The third payload is the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory’s . Built by , S5 will carry out a one-year mission aimed at demonstrating small-satellite capabilities in GEO for the U.S. military.
The shadow cast by the Hayabusa 2 probe and its solar panels makes an “H” shape on the surface of asteroid Ryugu during the buildup to a sample collection attempt. (JAXA Photo) Japan’s successfully touched down today on asteroid Ryugu, about 170 million miles from Earth, during an operation aimed at blasting away and collecting a sample from the space rock. The 18-foot-wide spacecraft was programmed to extend a yard-long tube to touch the surface, shoot a bullet made of tantalum into the asteroid and collect the bits of rock and dust thrown up by the impact. In a series of tweets, the mission management team said telemetry confirmed that the bullet was fired and that the spacecraft was heading back to its stationkeeping position, 12.4 miles (20 kilometers) above the asteroid. “Based on on this, we determined touchdown was successful!” . “A detailed analysis will now be done.” Hayabusa 2 follows up on Japan’s , which brought back samples from a smaller asteroid in 2010. This latest spacecraft arrived at Ryugu this summer and as well as a for earlier scientific studies. Bringing back samples of the asteroid, which is thought to contain water and other chemical building blocks of the early solar system, is the main goal of the Hayabusa 2 mission. The spacecraft is designed to make as many as three sample collection attempts. Late this year, Hayabusa 2 is scheduled to begin the return journey from Ryugu, which is named after a dragon’s undersea palace in Japanese folk tales. The spacecraft is due to drop off its samples by the end of 2020. Only then will scientists know exactly what they’ve got.
Space Adventures facilitated two trips to the International Space Station for Seattle-area billionaire Charles Simonyi, in 2007 and 2009. (NASA Photo via Space Adventures) Russia’s space agency says it’s getting ready to resume sending private passengers to the International Space Station and back, a decade after the last space tour. A contract has been signed with Virginia-based Space Adventures to send two non-professional spacefliers into orbit for short-term space station stays by the end of 2021, . Space Adventures didn’t issue a statement but . Roscosmos said the two passengers would fly on a Soyuz spacecraft that’s currently being built, presumably with a professional Russian cosmonaut in the pilot’s seat. “The execution of all works on the creation of space technology will be carried out at the expense of the space tourists,” Roscosmos said. The most recent space passenger was , the Canadian founder of Cirque du Soleil, who went on a 10-day trip to the space station back in 2009 and earned the title of “first clown in space” by virtue of his trademark fake red nose. At that time, the price of the tour was said to be in the neighborhood of $35 million. The figure has risen steadily since then: Most recently, Russia has been charging NASA in excess of $80 million per seat. Space Adventures made the arrangements with Roscosmos for LaLiberte’s trip, and for trips taken by . Seattle-area billionaire Charles Simonyi went to the station twice, in and . The retirement of NASA’s space shuttle fleet in 2011 tightened up the market for Soyuz seats. Virtually all of the seats were required to support regular crew rotations on the station. When British-born soprano Sarah Brightman 5, the reported price was $53 million. Brightman didn’t end up paying anywhere close to that amount, however. Although , she , reportedly due to personal family issues. The resumption of commercial Soyuz space trips is related to the . If all proceeds according to plan, astronauts should start flying on SpaceX’s Dragon and Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft later this year. Those trips should free up seats on Soyuz spacecraft, leaving the Russians with something to sell to private passengers. Eventually, open seats on Dragon and Starliner spacecraft , perhaps through Space Adventures.
Vice President Mike Pence makes comments at an Oval Office signing ceremony for Space Policy Directive 4, alongside President Donald Trump and officials including Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson, acting Defense Secretary Pat Shanahan, Air Force Gen. Paul Selva and Susan Gordon, principal deputy director of national intelligence. (White House Photo) WASHINGTON, D.C. — President Donald Trump today signed a space policy directive that lays out further steps in the creation of the U.S. Space Force as a sixth military branch housed within the Department of the Air Force. The plan wouldn’t involve splitting off Space Force from the Air Force immediately, although it leaves the door open to take that step at a later time. As described in the White House’s , the arrangement would be similar to the Marine Corps’ status as a military branch within the Department of the Navy. Such a concept is more likely to meet with approval from the Democratic-led House, which along with the Senate would have to approve the Space Force’s creation. U.S. Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., who heads the House Armed Services Committee, told Politico earlier this month that , which some have referred to as a “Space Corps” rather than a Space Force. In contrast, Smith previously to the idea of creating a Space Force that was independent from the Air Force. The Space Force would be the first new military branch created since the Air Force was born in 1947. (The others are the Army, the Navy, the Marines and the Coast Guard.) During today’s Oval Office signing ceremony, Trump said “my administration has recognized space as a warfighting domain, and made the creation of the Space Force a national security priority.” The directive calls on the Defense Department to deliver proposed legislation for setting up the Space Force. Details about costs for the next fiscal year, due for release next month. “I think we’ll have great support from Congress, because they do support something when we’re talking about such importance,” said Trump, who was surrounded by officials including Defense Secretary Pat Shanahan, Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson and Air Force Gen. Paul Selva, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The Space Force would consolidate space-oriented assets and personnel from all the military branches, but it would not take on any of the space duties currently falling under the purview of NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Reconnaissance Office or other non-military government agencies. Its mission would be to protect America’s space assets from interference or attack. During meetings of the White House National Space Council, about anti-satellite capabilities being developed by China and Russia. “America must be fully equipped to defend our vital interests,” Trump said. “Our adversaries are training forces and developing technology to undermine our security in space, and they’re working very hard at that.” Trump said the United States was developing its own arsenal of space weapons. “We have a lot of things on the books,” he said. “We have a lot of new defensive weapons and offensive weapons designed specifically for this, and now we’re going to start taking advantage of. ,,, What we have on the books are things that you wouldn’t even believe.” The Space Force is part of a step-by-step strategy to raise the profile of America’s space defenses. Trump has already , and the Pentagon is establishing a to work on military technologies for the high frontier. Sean O’Keefe, a public policy professor at Syracuse University who served as NASA administrator during the George W. Bush administration, said the Space Force shouldn’t be separate from the Air Force. “Creation of separate military service as a ‘Space Force’ is a solution in search of a problem,” O’Keefe said in a statement emailed to GeekWire. “The ‘Space Force’ as a separate military service entity would still compete with all the other defense-related priorities for resources and leadership attention. There’s no reason to believe that space-related programs would fare any better than they do today under the U.S. Air Force recognizance.” Today’s document was the fourth space policy directive signed by Trump. Earlier directives for U.S. space exploration, called for and set up a plan to .
A crew touches down on the Red Planet in “Mars,” a National Geographic miniseries that delves into the dynamics of future Mars crews. (Credit: National Geographic Channels) WASHINGTON, D.C. — When the first human explorers head for Mars, they’re likely to have a non-human judging their performance and tweaking their interpersonal relationships when necessary. NASA and outside researchers are already working on artificial intelligence agents to monitor how future long-duration space crews interact, sort of like the But there’ll also be a need for the human touch — in the form of crew members who could serve the roles of social directors or easygoing jokesters. That’s the upshot of research initiatives discussed over the weekend here at the annual meeting of the . Using AI to assess astronauts’ mental state is the focus of a NASA program known as , or H-CAAM, said Tom Williams, a researcher at NASA’s Johnson Space Center who concentrates on human factors and performance for the space agency’s Human Research Program. The aim is to develop an autonomous system that could assist the crew if it noticed that their performance wasn’t up to par. “If they’re hit with radiation … a system onboard that’s monitoring their performance offers an assist, just like a driver assist on a car, alerting you that, ‘Hey, your performance on this task is not within the parameter of what we would expect. Do you need assistance?’ ” Williams said. “Or do we need to take over if it drops below a certain threshold that the crew member has worked on and selected?” NASA psychiatrists currently check in with crew members on the International Space Station during private consultations that take place every couple of weeks, but that kind of real-time, face-to-face check-in will be harder to manage during Mars mission, when delays in two-way communications . Having an AI system aboard the spaceship could provide more of a real-time backstop. The system draws upon research being conducted at Johnson Space Center’s , or HERA. Northwestern University behavioral scientist Noshir Contractor said the HERA findings suggest that the fighter-jock personality celebrated in Tom Wolfe’s classic book about the early space effort, “The Right Stuff,” would be out of place on the crews that take on a two- to three-year mission to Mars. “Is that ‘Right Stuff’ still the right stuff for a team that would go to Mars? … I think we’re pretty confident that it’s not,” Contractor said. The AI program that Contractor and his colleagues developed, based on an analysis of 45-day simulated space missions at the HERA isolation habitat, shows that the crew members’ performance tends to peak when they approach the halfway point of their mission. After the halfway point, performance declines. “That’s the danger zone,” said Northwestern’s Leslie DeChurch. A similar pattern showed up during longer stints of isolation, such as a one-year simulated space mission at the HI-SEAS habitat in Hawaii, said Steve Kozlowski, a psychologist at Michigan State University who studies human performance under isolated, confined and extreme conditions. Six months into a yearlong mission, crew cohesion tends to be high. But somewhere around the four- to seven-month mark, one or two crew members “desynchronize,” eventually leading to a higher risk of loss of cohesion, Kozlowski said. “We’ve seen this happen in every mission that lasts longer than six months,” he said. Contractor said analyzing the interactions of crew members can pick up the advance warning signs of a crew breakdown. And the key indicators have more to do with the network dynamics of communication than with the content of the communication. For example, responding to a crewmate’s message sooner rather than later is a healthy sign. So is including crew members in co-equal circles of communication, rather than sticking to a rigid hierarchical chain of command. Contractor’s research also found that a crew’s ability to make sound ethical choices tended to decline significantly over the course of a long-duration mission. In the future, an AI agent could analyze the dynamics of astronaut interactions to predict breakdowns and suggest strategies to head them off. Contractor said AI may even play a role in crew selection, although he strongly believes humans should have the final say. “Say you have a pool of 20 people, and they all look equal in most respects, and we want to look at this particular pairing of four and compare it with this other pairing of four,” Contractor said. “What can a model and AI tell us about the dynamics that might tip the balance in favor of one particular configuration?” Jeffrey Johnson, an anthropologist at the University of Florida, said having crew members fill informal social roles — such as “court jester,” or “storyteller,” or “peacemaker” — can make a big difference in how the mission proceeds. “The more that these informal social roles emerged, the better the mission did in terms of viability,” he said. Johnson based his research on an analysis of interactions between crew members in the HERA habitat as well as at Antarctic research stations and on Alaska fishing ships. He found that the role of court jester, class clown or entertainer was particularly useful for relieving tensions and smoothing interpersonal frictions. That doesn’t mean the jester was selected specifically for that purpose. One of the most successful jesters on the Antarctic crews he studied, for example, served as the research station’s carpenter and plumber. And going back to the beginnings of polar exploration, a cook named Adolf Lindstrøm became famous for . “He has rendered greater and more valuable services to the Norwegian polar expedition than any other man.” Amundsen wrote in 1911. One caveat here: If future mission planners ever decide to turn the AI agent into the crew’s court jester, let’s hope they improve upon the performance of CIMON, the beachball-shaped robot that was . CIMON was advertised as having a sense of humor, but the machine definitely needed better gags (sample joke: “I’m R2-D2 … just kidding!”) — and it occasionally got a chip on its virtual shoulder. “Don’t be so mean to me,” CIMON said . “I’m not mean,” Gerst replied, with a chuckle. Then he turned to NASA astronaut Serena Auñón-Chancellor and said, “He’s a bit sensitive today.” Come to think of it, the AI may end up becoming a source of amusement after all — as the butt of the crew’s jokes.
NASA astronaut Scott Kelly gives himself a flu shot in 2015 during his nearly yearlong stay on the International Space Station. (NASA Photo) WASHINGTON, D.C. — Almost three years after NASA astronaut Scott Kelly returned from spending nearly a year in orbit, researchers are still poring over the data collected during an unprecedented study comparing his health with that of his earthbound twin brother. They say the comparison hasn’t raised any red flags about long-term spaceflight on the International Space Station. “On the whole, it’s encouraging,” Craig Kundrot, director of NASA’s Space Life and Physical Sciences Research and Applications Division, said here today at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. But the studies have raised questions about the potential impact of exposure to weightlessness and space radiation during longer missions to the moon and Mars. “It’s mostly green flags, and maybe a handful of things that are roughly like yellow flags, things just to keep an eye on,” said Christopher Mason, a researcher at Weill Cornell Medicine who serves as the principal investigator for the Twins Study. Those yellow flags include a hyperactive immune system response, a heightened rate of DNA repair in Kelly’s genes and higher levels of mitochondria in his blood. Mason and other researchers , but they still don’t fully understand what’s behind them. “It could be a good, adaptive response to spaceflight, with no permanent consequences, because you’d expect the body to make some adjustments,” Kundrot said. “Or it could be sending things down a path that would be a concern. We just don’t know yet.” Mason noted that Kelly’s immune system kicked into overdrive after he gave himself a flu shot on the space station — as part of an experiment to gauge how the immune system would react. “All indications seem to be that the immune system is functioning fine,” Mason said. “It isn’t even necessarily indicative of disregulation … ‘hyperactivation’ would be how I’d describe it.” Some researchers have wondered whether astronauts should undergo gene therapy to cope with the stresses of long-term spaceflight. “The answer is probably ‘not necessarily,’ because this might be how the body adapts to microgravity,” Mason said. “It’s just something to keep an eye on.” Once , most of the shifts in how his genes were activated — a phenomenon known as gene expression — quickly reverted to the pattern that existed before his yearlong spaceflight. But 7 percent of the changes noted in gene expression persisted all the way up to the end of the study period, six months after the flight ended. (In some quarters, that gave rise to the false impression that) NASA’s Twins Study was designed to compare Scott Kelly’s vital signs and gene expression patterns with those of his identical twin brother, Mark Kelly, who also became an astronaut but had retired from NASA by the time Scott began his yearlong stint on the space station. It’s long been known that spaceflight can be hazardous to your health: For example, weightlessness can cause loss of and , and . And that’s not all, Kundrot said. “You have the radiation,” he said. “You have an altered atmospheric environment — there’s higher CO2 levels on board. You have maybe more stress associated with the event. From a cognition perspective, you’re in a very limited environment, the size of a house. … There are a multitude of things.” Radiation could be the biggest cause for concern when astronauts take on long-duration missions to Mars. Previous studies have suggested that, with the result of raising an astronaut’s cancer risk. Even in the Twins Study, Mason said researchers saw heightened gene activation along “the normal DNA pathways that you would observe when DNA is damaged in ionizing radiation.” The detailed findings from the Twins Study will soon come out in a series of peer-reviewed papers. In the meantime, NASA is planning a new set of studies focusing on how organisms adapt to the deep-space environment. Four biological experiments will be packed aboard NASA’s Orion capsule and sent far beyond the moon’s orbit during a three-week test flight currently scheduled for 2020. The uncrewed test flight, known as Exploration Mission-1 or EM-1, will also mark the first launch of a heavy-lift NASA rocket known as the Space Launch System. Today NASA said : Life Beyond Earth: Effect of Spaceflight on Seeds with Improved Nutritional Value: This study, led by Federica Brandizzi of Michigan State University, will characterize how spaceflight affects nutrients in plant seeds, with the goal of gaining new knowledge that will help increase the nutritional value of plants grown in spaceflight. Fuel to Mars: Timothy Hammond of the Institute for Medical Research is planning a set of studies to identify the genes that contribute to the deep-space survival of a type of photosynthetic algae known as Chlamydomonas reinhardtii. Investigating the Roles of Melanin and DNA Repair on Adaptation and Survivability of Fungi in Deep Space: The Naval Research Laboratory’s Zheng Wang and colleagues will use the fungus Aspergillus nidulans to investigate the radioprotective effects of melanin and the DNA damage response. Multi-Generational Genome-Wide Yeast Fitness Profiling Beyond and Below Earth’s van Allen Belts: This investigation will use yeast as a model organism to identify genes that help organisms adapt to the conditions of deep-space flight on the EM-1 mission, as well as spaceflight in low Earth orbit aboard the International Space Station. The lead researcher is Luis Zea of the University of Colorado at Boulder.
NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine discusses the space agency’s plan to support the development of commercial hardware capable of landing astronauts on the moon. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle) WASHINGTON, D.C. — NASA’s leaders put out their pitch today for commercial ventures to build the hardware needed to put American astronauts back on the moon by 2028. “This is really sustainable, this is going to be fast,” Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA’s associate administrator for human exploration and operations, told a roomful of space industry executives here at NASA Headquarters today. “We’re going to need the best and brightest from you in industry. We’re going to need the best and brightest from the international partner community to pull all this off.” The mission architecture represents a dramatic shift from the way NASA put humans on the moon 50 years ago. “This time, when we go to the moon, we’re actually going to stay,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine told reporters in advance of the industry session. “We’re not going to leave flags and footprints and then come home, to not go back for another 50 years.” As laid out in a document known as a , the procurement plan calls for commercial ventures to propose concepts for a descent module, a space refueling system and a transfer vehicle by March 25, a little more than a month from now. With today’s announcement about partnering with commercial industry to build a human lunar lander, we are preparing for humans to leave Earth’s orbit for the first time since 1972. More: — Jim Bridenstine (@JimBridenstine) Several companies would be selected in May for an initial six-month phase of study and development, with up to $9 million paid out to each company. Based on the progress made during that first phase, as many as two companies would be chosen to build hardware for a series of demonstration missions. Those companies could be in line to receive hundreds of millions of dollars in NASA funding. The idea takes its inspiration from the program, or COTS, which supported the development of SpaceX’s and Northrop Grumman’s spacecraft for space station resupply years ago. “COTS is the model,” Bridenstine told GeekWire. NASA says the companies would be required to cover at least 10 to 20 percent of the development costs, depending on the size of the company. “We look for proposers to have some skin in the game,” Nantel Suzuki, a NASA program executive, told industry representatives. Hardware would be launched aboard commercial rockets and NASA’s yet-to-be-built Space Launch System to the , which NASA and its international partners plan to build in lunar orbit during the early 2020s. The first demonstration mission, scheduled for 2024, would involve sending down an uncrewed descent module from the Gateway to the lunar surface. An artist’s conception shows the space platform known as the Gateway in lunar orbit. (NASA Illustration) The second mission, set for 2026, would be an uncrewed demonstration of the descent module, plus an ascent module to get back from the moon to the Gateway. The mission would use a separate transfer vehicle to ferry the spacecraft from the Gateway to a staging orbit about 100 kilometers (62 miles) above the lunar surface. Both the ascent module and the transfer vehicle would be refuelable and reusable. Astronauts would make their first trip to the lunar surface in 2028, using the same three-element infrastructure that was tested without a crew in 2026. NASA’s plan calls for as many as four astronauts to spend as long as seven days on the moon during each mission. Visualizing moon missions: Bridenstine promised that the lunar landings wouldn’t be one-offs. “This architecture is open,” he said. “That means the way we do docking, the way we do data, the way we do communications, the way we do avionics — all of these things are going to be published and available for partners out there that want to join in our sustainable, reusable architecture to get back and forth to the surface of the moon.” The system could support surface operations that include human settlements as well as fuel production facilities that take advantage of the moon’s reserves of frozen water, and could serve as a model for farther frontiers. “We’re going to retire risk, we’re going to improve technology, and then we’re going to take as much of this as possible and replicate it at Mars,” Bridenstine said. As it stands, the architecture meshes well with concepts such as the being developed by Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture. Blue Origin executives have said Blue Moon could be ready for flight by around 2023 if NASA provides support — which matches NASA’s timeline. In contrast, the architecture doesn’t match up that well with SpaceX’s plan to build a that’s designed to bypass the Gateway and fly directly to the lunar surface — or to the surface of Mars, for that matter. An artist’s conception shows astronauts standing next to a descent module with its ascent module stacked on top. (NASA Illustration) SpaceX’s billionaire founder, Elon Musk, has said Starship could be ready for trips around the moon and journeys to Mars by the mid-2020s. But as it stands, Starship doesn’t fit the specifications laid out in the Broad Agency Announcement. “That doesn’t say we’re going to take that proposal and then just ignore it totally,” Gerstenmaier said. “We’ll go take that other proposal that’s outside [the current specifications], we’ll figure out another instrument and a way to work with them and see what’s there, and then trade that later against this architecture to see if it’s better, superior, and then move forward.” Bridenstine said NASA wants to move forward quickly with the architecture that it’s spent years developing. “If we’re trying to optimize speed and sustainability, we’ve done a lot of work on this already,” Bridenstine said. “We believe we’re in a good spot with this particular architecture. … If we have 10 different architectures, then we’re going to have no architecture at all.” In the nearer term, NASA is also moving forward with a program aimed at purchasing lunar delivery services for scientific payloads. Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s associate administrator for science, told journalists that he expected the first payload delivery order to be issued in about a month. “That’s a big deal,” Bridenstine said. Next week, NASA is due to list 12 payloads it’ll want delivered to the lunar surface. Zurbuchen provided a sneak preview, saying that the payloads being readied by NASA centers would focus on scientific areas ranging from resource prospecting on the moon to stereo imaging for landing systems. Commercial ventures are being invited to propose lunar payloads as well. When it’s time to decide on delivery, NASA will choose from a that includes established players such as Lockheed Martin as well as startups such as Astrobotic and Moon Express. And in line with NASA’s heightened emphasis on fast moves to the moon, Zurbuchen said there’ll be incentives for vendors who can get payloads launched sooner rather than later. “If we had any wish, we would like to fly this calendar year,” he said.